4 out of 5 stars

The King of Staten Island is a semi-autobiographical dramedy written by Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson and Dave Sirus, who partnered with director Judd Apatow. 24-year-old Scott Carlin (Davidson) is living the life the actor/comedian himself might have, had he not discovered comedy as a teenager Both Scott and Pete grew up in the borough of Staten Island after losing their firefighter fathers as children (Davidson’s dad died during the 9/11 attack), and both consequently suffer from mental health problems.

Scott lives in Staten Island with his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei) and spends his time getting aimlessly stoned and inking his friends with bad tattoos. While it’s been many years since the September 11th attacks, the grief of losing his father is no less debilitating. Scott’s repression and inability to move on from his teenage years is strongly linked to the sudden loss of his father.

The King of Staten Island works because of how grounded Pete Davidson is in this role. In recent years he has become less of an up-and-coming comedian and more tabloid fodder for his relationship with singer Ariana Grande, which collapsed and fed directly into his stand-up, bitter songs, and a suicide scare. Somehow this dalliance into the world of modern celebrity only enhances Davidson’s performance here. He’s lanky, pale, with a body covered in tattoos, and open about his depression and borderline personality disorder (and his self-medication to cope with it). Davidson is an unlikely leading man; honest and flawed, raw and developing, and it makes for a captivating watch. Much like Steve Carell and Seth Rogen, his lack of traditional star quality is what makes him special.

One day, Scott meets a kid asking for a tattoo. Ignoring the fact that inking a nine-year-old might be a bad idea, the boy ends up screaming his way home with a tiny inked line on his arm. Later that day, the kid’s angry father Ray (Bill Burr) turns up to give Scott a piece of his mind, only to meet Scott’s beautiful mother and ask her out on a date. Ray is also a firefighter and suddenly Scott has to face the possibility his father may be replaced.

Tempers boil over when Ray takes Scott to a baseball game with his fellow firefighters (one played by firefighter-turned-actor Steve Buscemi). When asked if he has ever thought of taking up the professional too, Scott starts ranting about why firefighters are selfish to have families. It’s a raw emotion depicted in a film that often minimises the impact of mental health and toxic masculinity (not because they consider it a small issue, but because Scott has dealt with it for so long it’s become just another part of his life.)

The King of Staten Island suffers from being far too long at 136-minutes. There are too many shapeless diversionary scenes and subplots that are neither funny or advance the narrative. There’s a weird robbery sequence that feels like it comes from an entirely different film, and the scenes involving Scott’s college student sister Claire (Maude Apatow) don’t add anything.

Shaving off half an hour would have improved the viewing experience without losing any of the messaging. Some will find The King of Staten Island frustrating, while others will find it refreshing. It doesn’t have any big character arcs, no grand coming-of-age event, and no life-changing romance or revelation. Unlike many of Apatow’s previous films (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), there’s a looseness to the comedy that focuses less on punchlines and gross-outs and more on a warm realism. This muted comedy style suits the characters of Scott and his friends (Moises Arias, Lou Wilson), who spend their days being well-meaning but are cluelessly arrested in their development. They’re all emotionally inert; forgotten by their neighbourhood and pitied by their elders. Scott has one goal in life, to open a tattoo restaurant (the idea being you watch people getting tattooed as you eat your dinner), but even that’s a pipe dream.

While Davidson is a raw young talent, Apatow is smart to surround him with a compelling and experienced cast. Buscemi has minimal screen time but imbues his role with honesty; Apatow’s own daughter Maude is slowly coming into her own as a young actress; while Marisa Tomei ignores the ‘funny mother’ tropes as feisty Margie. Bel Powley (Diary of a Teenage Girl) also proves herself as one of the brightest talents around as Kelsey, Scott’s on-off girlfriend.

The King of Staten Island drifts along much like its the characters. It’s a subtle low-energy take on a coming-of-age comedy, perhaps lacking the highs and lows expected of an Apatow project, but there’s an unexpected tenderness here. Providing more drama than belly laughs, The King Of Staten Island is unexpectedly heartfelt with a few surprises along the way.

USA | 2020 | 136 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider universal

Cast & Crew

director: Judd Apatow.
writers: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson & Dave Sirus.
starring: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow, Steve Buscemi & Pamela Adlon.