The King of Staten Island

Come at the King, you better not diss
Verdict: 
Verdict: 8/10 - Pete Davidson’s strange star quality is captured adeptly in this cutting yet surprisingly charming slacker comedy.
Release Date: 
Friday, June 12, 2020
Written by: 

Pete Davidson shines as a character based on himself in Judd Apatow's cutting New York comedy.

8

For several years now, Pete Davidson has been a wunderkind of American comedy - winning influential admirers with his abrasive deadpan stand-up style and becoming one of the youngest-ever Saturday Night Live castmembers.

Brits, however, may only know the 26-year-old for his high-profile romances with ex-fiancee Ariana Grande and Kate Beckinsale.

Beneath the headlines (and occasional controversy) was and is a complex character forged by personal travails. Behind the laughter, he lost his dad - a New York City firefighter who died on 9/11 - and has had battles with Crohn's disease and depression, as well as developing a much-discussed marijuana habit that has fuelled his confessional and cutting style.

That background is mostly shared with Scott, his character in The King of Staten Island, the new movie he has co-written alongside its director, Judd Apatow - the man behind some of Hollywood's biggest comedy hits in the past two decades.

Scott is going nowhere from his native New York borough, trapped by an attitude that leaves him with few positive outlets for his sardonic wit other than a ludicrous plan to open a "tattoo restaurant".

Living with his mum Margie (Marisa Tomei) and sister Claire (Maude Apatow) in a family unit that's held together by their shared unprocessed grief over the death of his dad (in the film, killed during normal duties rather than on 9/11), he bounces between deadbeat pals, a dead-end waiter's job, and childhood friend-turned-casual sex partner Kelsey (Bel Powley).

Making his uselessness feel more acute is his sister's departure to university, and his mother's new relationship with another firefighter, Ray (Bill Burr), whom she meets after Scott recklessly decides to try out his tattooing skills on a neighbourhood nine-year-old.

If all this sounds depressing for a comedy, you're wrong. The secret to the slacker comedy genre is getting your audience to like spending time with its characters, and for all of Scott's cynicism, occasional outright obnoxiousness, and his uncaring treatment of the idealistic Kelsey, who is very much in love with him, we do. He's funny, with quips about the hipster-driven gentrification of New York's other boroughs repeatedly landing.

Davidson's performance perfectly captures the sense that his acting out comes not from arrogance or malice, but from his belief that he doesn't deserve to be happy or successful, and so others who do either have ulterior motives or are being hopelessly naive.

The King of Staten Island is also very much a return to Apatow's roots in the revered TV comedy he executive-produced - Freaks and Geeks - in its naturalistic style. There's less of the broad Knocked Up, Trainwreck, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin-esque comedy that made the director a bankable Hollywood figure, but led to diminishing returns over time. Here there's much more heart, realism, and relatability.

Plus, there are some laugh-out-loud scenes. Scott's various attempts to prevent Ray from becoming his step-dad through sarcasm alone are great, while an interview for his dream job as a tattooist ends with Davidson ribbing one customer over his racist tattoos (with predictable results).

As the film moves into its second and third acts, there are also some genuinely moving and emotional moments - and even one, inside a pharmacy, of real jeopardy and comic tragedy. Framing all these musically is a carefully curated soundtrack that includes everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to contemporary hip-hop.

One problem with the film is that at over two hours, it's simply too long, and so sags in parts and circles its themes and plot. You get the feeling Apatow and Davidson struggled to, in screenwriting terms "kill their babies", and cut scenes and lines they loved but that repeated ideas or did little to further character or plot.

However, Davidson and his proxy Scott, his unconventional family, and the assortment of Staten Island odds and sods that surround them are enjoyable and engaging enough company to make this a minor fault amid a movie that shows surprising heart alongside its scabrous humour.

© Cover Media

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