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The King of Staten Island Review

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It’s time for the world to get to know Pete Davidson. For years on Saturday Night Live, he’s been the goofball stoner. Across tabloids, he’s been a playboy, romancing numerous starlets. In interviews and his stand-up, he’s been frank about his personal life, talking about sex, drug use, and his struggles with mental health. Now, he’s channeled all of the above into the lumbering and occasionally uncertain The King of Staten Island. Written by Davidson, Dave Sirus, and Judd Apatow, The King of Staten Island imagines how the twenty-six-year-old’s life might have been different if he hadn’t discovered stand-up comedy.Davidson stars as Scott, a 24-year-old Staten Islander who still lives at home with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei). He has no job, no high school diploma, and no real prospects. Sure, Scott talks about opening a tattoo shop/restaurant called Ruby Tattoos-days. But his efforts toward realizing this dream are half-assed at best, leaving his stoner friends littered with horrid practice tattoos. Still, Margie is endlessly patient with her son, in part because they’re both grieving his firefighter father who died in the line of duty 17 years before. However, when a new man (Bill Burr) enters her life, Scott’s slacker lifestyle is challenged, forcing this late-bloomer to grow up fast.

The King of Staten Island plucks bits of Davidson’s real-life to create an engaging blend of comedy and drama that will invite audiences to re-evaluate their perception of its star. Apatow, who also directed the film, has done this twice before, helming Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck and producing Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick. In the former, Schumer’s shtick of joking about her promiscuity and immaturity was explored through the lens of rom-com tropes, thereby challenging the double standard applied to sexually active single women. In the latter, Nanjiani challenged the racist stereotypes against Pakistani-Americans while rebranding himself from snarky sidekick to charming leading man, inspired by his real-life romance. Each film launched its leads by humanizing them beyond their typecasting. With The King of Staten Island, Davidson sheds his goofy grin to show his wounded side. While daring, the film’s execution doesn’t make room for much fun.There are jokes, some sophomoric humor from his fried friends, some snarky quips from a defensive Scott, and a sloppy shoot-out that’s played bizarrely for laughs. However, Apatow flubs the balance between the story’s pathos and comedy. It’s hard to laugh at or with Scott when we as an audience are furrow-browed in concern, and not just for him but also for those around him. Apatow and Davidson challenge the audience’s empathy by beginning The King of Staten Island with a disturbing scene of a reckless suicide attempt.

Driving along a highway, Scott solemnly closes his eyes with the clear intention of crashing. This seems to be the screenwriter device called “kill the cat,” in which a script introduces the hero through a tragic moment to inspire concern in the audience. However, this “kill the cat” moment not only threatens our hero but also anyone else on that road. Thankfully, Scott changes his mind in the nick of time, and though some cars collide, it doesn’t seem too serious. But we don’t know for sure, because he keeps driving, muttering an apology that those impacted won’t hear. There’s no callback to this opening scene and no consequences for Scott. So, we as an audience are left with this unsetting tension as we witness him careen from one mistake to another, cringing in anticipation of disaster. This hangs like a cloud over the rest of the movie, which makes even scenes of levity feel slightly sullen.

Perhaps to offset this darkness, Scott is surrounded by colorful characters, who are brought to life by a stellar ensemble. Apatow has always had a gift for casting. Tomei is expectedly charming and poignant as Scott’s beleaguered mom. As Scott’s more ambitious kid sister Claire, Maude Apatow, who has grown up onscreen through her father’s films, is fantastically focused and fiery, challenging Davidson to rise to her level with every shared scene. Bel Powley offers spunk and sharp comedic timing as Scott’s love interest Kelsey, while Moises Arias brings a breathtaking sweetness as the runt of his stoner crew. Stand-up Bill Burr proves a solid scene partner for his real-life protégé, delivering tough love and irate outbursts with an authentic intensity. Plus, acclaimed character actor Steve Buscemi pops in to play a firehouse chief, reflecting a portion of his actual life as a New York firefighter. With a weary eye and a warm smile, Buscemi deftly displays a radiant brand of fatherly love that is non-toxic and healing. But for all of this incredible support, the film’s success or failure hinges on Davidson’s performance. With that, your mileage may vary, depending on how compelling you find this comic when he’s not yukking it up.

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