King of Staten Island, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/08/20 19:21:58

"a.k.a. C.H.A.D."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“The King of Staten Island” is a film that asks audiences to spend 136 minutes inside the psyche of Pete Davidson—the gangly and heavily tattooed performer on “Saturday Night Live” who is probably more famous for his backstory (as a child growing up in Staten Island, he lost his firefighter father on 9/11) and his current dating history than his punchlines—in order to speculate on how he might have turned out if he hadn’t turned to comedy to bring some sort of focus to his life. The resulting film is not strictly biographical but then again, it isn’t much of a movie either—it feels more like an elaborate therapy session than anything else. Clearly director/co-writer Judd Apatow was hoping that making another film based on the talents and perspective of a unique comedic talent outside of his usual group of colleagues would yield results as strong as his last movie, the genuinely hilarious and heartfelt “Trainwreck.” With that film, of course, he had the good fortune to work with Amy Schumer, someone who actually had something new and intriguing to say with her comedy and the acting chops that allowed her to deliver a performance that showed her capable of doing more than just delivering jokes. This time around, Apatow is not so lucky and while the film does have some nice moments and a couple of big laughs here and there, it is largely an unfocused and lightly excruciating work that eventually feels more like “Good Will Hunting” with fewer laughs and even less in the way of dramatic resolution.

Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old guy from Staten Island who inspires one to break the phrase “slacker” out of cold storage to use as a description. He is a lazy, foul-mouthed and ambition-free twerp who dropped out of art school and now spends the vast majority of his free time getting stoned and watching trashy movies with his buddies while slumping on the couch in the basement of the house where he still lives with his long-suffering mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and college-bound sister Claire (Maude Apatow). Occasionally, he has sex with Kelsey (Bel Powley), the girl he has known since grade school and whose adoration of him is outshone only by his complete inability to recognize it. The closest thing he has to something resembling ambition is a vague dream of opening up a restaurant where the patrons get tattoos while they dine—this would be a spectacularly bad idea even if he happened to be a good tattooist, which he isn’t. (A failed attempt at an Obama tattoo provides one of the biggest laughs in the film.) We soon learn that when he was seven years old, his firefighter father was killed on the job (not on 9/11, it should be noted) and Scott has never gotten past it, spending his life since then festering in a combination of rage, depression and self-pity that he cloaks with his brash “fuck you” attitude towards everything and which everyone in his inner circle cuts him enormous loads of slack because. . . you know, his father died.

Clearly, someone or something has to come along to prod Scott out of his pot-infused shell and come to terms with his life. That someone happens to be Ray (Bill Burr), who turns up on Margie’s doorstep in a rage one day to complain that Scott tried to give his 9-year-old son a tattoo. Later, he returns to apologize to Margie for blowing up at Scott, sparks fly between them when they go out for coffee and the two begin dating. To add insult to injury, at least in Scott’s eyes, Ray also happens to be a firefighter as well, adding a level of Oedipal intrigue to his complaints about the guy. When Margie and Ray start making plans for him to move in—with the implicit realization that he will be moving out in this scenario—and even hire him to walk Ray’s kids to and from school, Scott hits upon a plan to cause the two to break up for good. Like most of Scott’s plans, this one fails spectacularly and, in one of the more contrived moves in a film filled with them, he ends up bunking at Ray’s fire station, where the head fireman (Steve Buscemi, who has served as a fireman in real life) tells him previously unheard stories about his dad and puts him to work cleaning up, a move that inspires Scott to finally find some much-needed direction in his life before it is too late.

Because certain aspects of this story are inspired at least in part by Davidson’s own life, most people sitting down to watch it who have any knowledge of his life will find themselves trying to parse out which elements actually happened, something that Apatow does not really try to avoid. As unseemly as it may sound, the mildly voyeuristic sensation that one gets from the film as a result of that is pretty much the main thing of interest for about an hour or so. A number of the scenes in this section have a loose and natural structure that give the glimpses of Scott in a permanent state of entropy an almost documentary-like feel. The problem is that as it goes on (and on), that sensation starts to fade away as it becomes increasingly apparent that the film is transforming into just another movie. In fact, it morphs into yet another variation of Apatow’s preferred theme of a nominally charming man-child who is forced by circumstances to finally end their perpetual state of arrested adolescence and start acting like an adult. At least in his previous explorations of this concept, Apatow at least took the time to show his characters actually confronting their various issues before they finally turn the corner in the final scenes. Here, instead of actually showing Scott coming to terms with himself with himself as a way to move on, he just becomes an all-around better person (even his tattoos improve markedly) without actually doing anything of significance to cause it to happen. Instead of forcing Scott to do any of the hard work, the screenplay (which Davidson co-wrote) just lets him off the hook, which has the effect of letting the wind out of the sails of the presumably triumphant final scenes.

Then again, perhaps the absence of such scenes is a tacit admission on the part of Apatow that, unlike the cases of Steve Carell, Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer, he elected to base his entire film around a performer who could not convincingly pull off such moments in the first place. I will confess that Davidson is not exactly my favorite amongst the current “SNL” cast and I will also admit that perhaps it is some kind of generational thing that I simply do not get. However, in small doses, he can be amusing on the show and he was reasonably effective as yet another variation of his real-life persona earlier this year in “Big Time Adolescence.” Here, he is okay for a little while in the early scenes but when the material shifts to slightly more weighty matters, he just doesn’t have the chops to navigate the shifts in tone from comedy to drama to pathos and beyond. Scott may be a different person when all is said and done but you never get a sense of that since his performance hits one note early on and sticks with it throughout. Meanwhile, it is the supporting players—especially Tomei, Powley and Buscemi—who really bring it and the scenes in which they take part are so effective that when they are over, you want to stick with them instead of returning to the ostensible central character.

“The King of Staten Island” may not be the worst Apatow film to date—the stuff with Tomei alone places it above the likes of “This is 40”—but it is not one of his more inspired ones either. Even if you factor out Davidson’s limitations as a performer, the film suffers from the usual flaws that have become all too familiar in Apatow’s work—it goes on way too long and contains any number of scenes and subplots that have absolutely no business being there and which drag everything else surrounding them down. (There is a subplot involving the attempted robbery of a drugstore that goes on forever, adds nothing of note to the narrative and is pretty clunky from a purely cinematic standpoint to boot.) However, this is perhaps the least focused of his films to date—other than giving a hand to Davidson, you never get any sense of why Apatow decided that he needed to tell this particular story in the first place. Maybe the problem is that the film just isn’t autobiographical enough—I cannot be the only one who thinks that a film that stuck more closely to Davidson’s real-life story, the way that Richard Pryor did with his wildly ambitious sort-of biopic “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling” (1986), might have had a greater sense of urgency than what has been presented here. I am glad that Davidson managed to pull his life together, at least to some extent, and transform his anger and hurt into his art—I just wish that it had resulted in something more interesting than this.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.