'The King of Staten Island' Review: Pete Davidson Takes the Lead in Judd Apatow's Unfocused Dramedy
“There’s something wrong with me…mentally.” So says Scott (Pete Davidson), a directionless 20-something whose greatest ambition in life is to open a tattoo restaurant and get high all day while still living with his mom. Prone to fits of anger, and seemingly incapable of reading a room, Scott has never gotten over the death of his firefighter father. So when his long-suffering mother (Marisa Tomei) starts dating another firefighter (Bill Burr), Scott’s entire fractured world spins even further out of his control.
Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island is meant to be Pete Davidson’s big moment. Sure, Davidson isn’t exactly an unknown at this point – he’s been on Saturday Night Live since 2014, had supporting parts in numerous films and TV shows, and his very public relationship with singer Ariana Grande was plastered everywhere for a period of time. But Davidson has never had a leading role like this before, and the marketing for King of Staten Island makes a big deal about how Apatow is about to do for Davidson what he did for performers like Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Kristen Wiig, Amy Schumer, and Kumail Nanjiani.
To be sure, Davidson is inexplicably charming here. At one point, Scott’s sister (Maude Apatow) tells her brother: “All anybody does is worry about you.” The line rings true – on the surface, Scott should be incredibly unlikable. He’s a bit of a prick, he lacks ambition, he’s prone to anger, he’s indifferent to his friends and family – I could go on, but you get the point. And yet there really is something about Davidson that makes you understand why so many of the characters here continue to be drawn to him, and continue to excuse his antics. You can’t help but like the guy.
Unfortunately, all of this stuff is stuck inside a Judd Apatow movie, which means it goes on way too long. Apatow is a highly successful filmmaker, and many of his movies are not without their charms. But the director has never embraced the concept of brevity, and more often than not, his movies stretch on to tedious lengths. The King of Staten Island is no exception, clocking in at a whopping 136 minutes, and let me tell you, you’ll notice every single minute. Adding insult to injury, there are several loose story threads that could’ve easily been cut out to make the film tighter – there’s an entire storyline where Scott gets a job as a waiter, and then has to participate in a kind of fight club to earn his tips, that goes literally nowhere, and seems to only be here because Apatow thought it was kind of amusing.
And curiously enough, even though this is supposed to be Davidson’s big coming-out party, it’s the cast around him who gets to truly shine. Tomei, an always-welcomed presence, is phenomenal as Scott’s awkward mother, so much so that I wish the movie had really been about her and left Scott as a supporting character. The clumsy-but-cute relationship that blooms between Tomei’s character and Bill Burr’s equally awkward firefighter is genuinely sweet, and while Burr seems to be playing the guy he always plays, Boston accent dialed up to 11 and all, he and Tomei have shaggy chemistry that’s rather endearing.
Bel Powley also makes an impression in a small role as Scott’s childhood friend Kelsey, who has become a friend with benefits. It’s clear the two have genuine feelings for each other, but Scott is too afraid to give voice to them, and Kelsey is sick of waiting. Powley sticks herself with a rather clunky Staten Island accent, but manages to rise above it. Also (predictably) great: Steve Buscemi, in a way-too-small role as another firefighter Burr’s character works with.
The King of Staten Island wants to balance sweetness with humor, but it never quite figures out the formula. Many of Davidson’s quips are pretty funny, but there’s nothing here that’s going to stick with you – the next great quotable comedy this is not. The pathos fairs a bit better, but here the problems of Davidson’s range become apparent. Davidson can sell a scene when he’s required to be a funny jackass, but he struggles with the more dramatic beats. Perhaps realizing this, the film hands over most of the big emotional moments to the supporting players, like Tomei and Powley.
They’re up to the challenge, but it all comes across as a bit weird and unfocused – this is supposed to be Scott’s story, and indeed, the script, but Apatow, Davidson, and Dave Sirus, is drawing on biographical moments from Davidson’s own life. So why then does Scott feel like such an arbitrary character? And while I’m asking questions, why the heck would you hire legendary cinematographer Robert Elswit, and then have him shoot the entire movie like a sitcom episode? Inquiring minds would like to know.
This comedy mostly gets by on the charms of its cast, but its unfocused, shambling manner saps most of the film’s energy by the time it draws to an unsatisfying conclusion. Davidson is a likable guy who deserves more chances to showcase his talents, but while The King of Staten Island was meant to be the big debut of Pete Davidson, Leading Man, it’s ultimately a confirmation that he’s better off sticking with supporting roles.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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