Pete Davidson is, to many, an enigma. To me, he’s become somewhat of a hero. His hilarious and, believe it or not, brave statements on mental health on a public platform have allowed people suffering in silence and fear to not only discuss their conditions out loud but laugh about them too. But his status as an entertainer has always been in flux. As even he will tell you, he feels like he’s sometimes the butt of the joke, not the purveyor of them. Is he an actor? A writer? Rapper? The King of Staten Island, available on video-on-demand now, tries to answer that question as Davidson stars, writes, and produces the semi-autobiographical feature in what could be a star-defining turn for the 26-year-old entertainer.
The newest film from director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin) follows Scott Carlin (Davidson), a 24-year-old man child who still lives at home with his forever-tired nurse mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) on Staten Island. Wasting his days smoking weed and dreaming of opening the first-ever tattoo parlor/restaurant, the aimless Scott watches as his sister Claire (Maude Apatow) leaves home for college with high aspirations and all the family’s hope. Though he won’t admit it, Scott is still suffering, 17 years later, from his firefighter father’s heroic death rescuing a family from a burning building. His dad’s legend throughout the community, and enshrined in the household, still casts a shadow on young Scott.
One day, thanks to an unfortunate tattoo incident at the beach involving a nine-year-old boy, Scott inadvertently introduces Margie to Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter himself and single father. In a short period of time, Ray begins to integrate into the family as Margie’s boyfriend much to Scott’s chagrin. As time moves on and the ghost of his father haunts him, Scott must decide if he is finally going to grow up and move out of the house to pursue his future…any kind of future…and let the past go and, more importantly, let his mother be happy.
The King of Staten Island’s synopsis feels more like a drama and that is perhaps where the film should have gone. But being a Judd Apatow film with the same exact skeletal structure as his biggest and most influential hits, the film is set up to be an out and out comedy. And that is where the movie’s identity crisis affects its power to influence the audience. The King of Staten Island has the potency, and the acting behind it, to be a powerhouse of either genre but instead straddles the line so much that it lacks the punch of either.
Apatow has the ability to blend heartfelt sentimentality and drama with humor. He’s done it before. But in most cases, he has sprinkled it in bits inside a firmly comedic shell. When he’s tried to go outside of this formula, he has had mixed results. With Funny People, he boldly tried to have it both ways, filming a straight-up comedy in one half and a drama in the other with mixed results. In This Is 40, he mellowed out the comedy and tried to make a lowkey dramedy of sorts, that, like The King of Staten Island, didn’t end up landing heavy punches on either side of the aisle.
But unlike This Is 40, The King of Staten Island has potent dramatic potential. And not only does the basic storyline of a family haunted by a firefighter’s death provide immediate pathos for Scott, Margie, and Claire on the fictional side but the actors portraying the characters bring their A-game to the material as well. Those thinking Davidson a silly clown may be surprised by his raw intensity and shocking vulnerability. And while no one should be shocked by the Oscar winner Tomei’s range, her dedication to a role many might think a throwaway part is admirable and, dare I say, even Oscar-worthy in itself. Even the irascible Bill Burr has moments of tender drama pulled out of him in moments that surprised me.
But these performances are somewhat wasted as Apatow pulls out of the dramatic moments often, sometimes right when they are just starting to get cooking, to instead focus on comedic set pieces that feel better suited to a sketch comedy show. Are these moments funny? Without a doubt. Watching Burr and Davidson trade barbs or riff/ad-lib about many subjects, for instance, is worth the price of admission but it seems to so alien to the compelling drama that could be at hand. Plus, Apatow insists on surrounding Davidson with a number of goofy lieutenants who draw power away from where we should be focusing our attention. In something like Knocked Up, where Apatow surrounded his protagonist, Seth Rogen, with seasoned veterans from the Apatow stable of actors, The King of Staten Island mostly features unknowns who straddle the fence of unlikability and mildly funny.
This isn’t to say The King of Staten Island isn’t a worthwhile journey to take. No Apatow adventure is ever a true waste of time. You’ll have laughs and, when hitting on the right cylinders, you’ll even get heartache, and the factual nature behind many of the goings-on, pulling from many of Davidson’s own experiences, shows an earnest, honest nature that many so-called dramedies can only pretend to imitate. It’s just that the film could have been so much more than it set out to be and, like Craig, suffers from a bit of thematic arrested development.