The King of Staten Island
Pete Davidson has been a celebrity on the rise, both for his biting stand-up comedy as well as for his dating life. However, the Saturday Night Live (1975-) cast member has also become known for a troubling upbringing, mostly due to the absence of his firefighter father who died on 9/11. Just over a year ago Davidson posted suicidal messages on social media, which led him towards a therapeutic recovery that produced the script of this film.
The King of Staten Island (2020) is the newest film from legendary comedic director/producer Judd Apatow. The film is semi-autobiographic of Davidson’s own life. The narrative follows Scott (Davidson) a 24-year-old man in arrested development as he sees his younger sister go off to college, while he remains living with his mother on Staten Island and lazily dreaming of opening a tattoo restaurant. Scott’s father was a fireman who died in a fire, and leaves an incredible trauma on our protagonist, who is bogged down by the loss while the rest of his family is moving on without him.
Apatow has been an incredible scout for upcoming comedic talent. He was the filmmaker who “discovered” Steve Carrell in The 40-year-old Virgin (2005), as well as the entire young cast of Superbad (2007), Seth Rogen in Knocked Up (2007), and most recently Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (2015). However, none of those comedies have had the darker aspects of The King of Staten Island; this might very well be the most dramatic of Apatow’s films. There are scattered laughs here and there, but they seem to be only used to lighten the mood from the desperation and stagnation that Scott is feeling.
The screenplay co-written by Davidson, most likely came as a therapeutic exercise, and because of it no set genre structure is followed. This leads to a more unpredictable and liberated story, but it also risks testing the audience’s patience as they aren’t sure what to expect. As such, The King of Staten Island seems to have an incredibly crowded story, with a large ensemble, and yet we barely get to spend much time with many of them. Scott’s sister (a good Maude Apatow) is in a handful of scenes, Scott’s friend-with-benefits (Bel Powley) seemingly becomes central to his character arc half-way through the film with little build up, and Scott’s group of friends begin the film as an essential core, and yet are forgotten by the third act. These inclusions all seem to be an attempt at providing a more complete picture of Scott’s journey, as well as Davidson himself dealing with the different aspects of his social life. In a film, however, one would expect a studio or director to trim such storylines, which seem to devolve in especially long scenes that end long after they had made their point, but Apatow has been infamous for always stretching his films much longer than they need to be.
With a supporting cast that is largely left in the dark (especially a promising Powley) the only surrounding characters that shine are the great Marisa Tomei as Scott’s mother and Bill Burr as her new boyfriend. Both of these actors seem to show a glimpse at lives surrounded by similar trauma, and yet dealing with it in a very different way. The King of Staten Island chooses to focus on a very natural reaction to the scarring of a tragic event, that of disconnect and indifference to life. This prods Davidson to deliver a rather quiet and restrained performance, that has to walk a fine line of showing the desperate sluggishness of Scott’s life and his decisions while making his character seem likeable for viewers. Davidson largely achieves this and is able to carry the film even as the script seems to wander off in unnecessary detours.
In the end, The King of Staten Island was a curious and unconventional film for both Apatow and Davidson. It was a brave exploration of grief and trauma, however, the unstructured aspects of the script demand much more compactness for a steady rhythm. However, the deeper psychological inquiries prove to be fascinating enough for those patient viewers.