YES! FINALLY a summer movie–and it’s a good one. “The King of Staten Island” stars that tall gawky SNL cast member who dresses like a 12 year-old, was engaged to Ariana Grande for a minute, and sometimes plays the shallow, slack-jawed pool boy next door you want to rescue. He’s been quite open about his personal struggles with mental illness and depression, which he has put to hilariously good use on Weekend Update— and which immediately endeared me to him. His personal life is once again the source of creative and comedy gold in his latest outing on the big screen and brings dimension, soulful humor, and instant credibility to a character based on his own life. The semi-autobiographical film was co-written by Davidson, Dave Sirus, and director Judd Apatow with a perfect cast of imperfect souls on an extended family voyage of self-actualization on Staten Island.
Davidson plays Scott Carlin a man-child holed up in his mom’s basement smoking weed and covered, torso to tail, with unlovely tattoos of his own making. His dream is to open a tattoo/restaurant called “Ruby Tattoos Days”– which almost made me lose it. What’s holding him back are scars that run deeper than his crudely-inked flesh. Scott’s father was a firefighter killed in the line of duty and he’s never gotten over losing his dad, his sadness and sense of abandonment erupting in bouts of rage, resentment, entitlement, and lack of forward momentum, stranding him amidst a group of misfits going nowhere fast. (Davidson, who was born on Staten Island, lost his own father, a firefighter, who was killed in the line of duty on 9/11 when Pete was 7 years old.)
Scott’s spunky, hardworking mother Margie is played by the inevitably excellent Marisa Tomei who lets us feel the simmering frustration and loneliness beneath her warmth and patience. She’s an ER nurse who’s taken caregiving to extremes by coddling her troubled overgrown son, who is in turn resented by Scott’s sister Claire (Maude Apatow, the director’s real life daughter). She’s about to graduate and head off to college, but worries about the wreckage she’s leaving behind: Scott driving her mom crazy with his temper and impromptu escapades.
So what’s going to unlock this dysfunctional trio? A new man in mom’s life, “Ray” (Bill Burr ) suddenly erupts in a fit of anger on her doorstep, and he just happens to be a firefighter. The broad outlines of this tale suddenly take shape, as well as another layer of father/son drama. A team of firefighters also figures in, among them Paul Buscemi’s “Papa” character, and a scene that might rival “Field of Dreams” for sheer father/son pathos.
The film wisely takes its time meandering through the jangly dynamics of these rough and tumble characters, reveling in their idiosyncrasies as they try to figure out who they are, what they want, and how they’re going to get there. Ray is initially off-putting, trying too hard to worm his way into Scott’s house and good graces. And it’s not clear if Ray is a good guy or a bad guy; is he taking Scott’s mom for a ride or a just a decent guy who’s made mistakes and is also trying to find his way with his own two kids after a collapsed marriage? Davidson’s scenes with these two adorable children, Harold and Kelly (Luke David Blumm and Alexis Rae Forlenza) as he walks them to school are priceless. Scott relates to them as both child and parent, and we have yet another lens through which to watch him as he might see himself in the future.
Apatow’s raunchy humor often makes me squirm. But here, he tenderizes his comedic chops, with a good deal of insight and even grace, holding these characters loosely and lovingly in his sights. Their humanity comes rippling through their surface quirks and shortcomings, fistfights, embarrassing outbursts, mad dreams, and crazy schemes. He does very well by Pete Davidson who absolutely holds the screen with his sweetness and sarcasm, and we hold our breath as he skirts life’s dangers: taunting a burly biker in a tattoo shop, participating in an hilariously inept holdup, or suddenly daring to feel what he really feels when Kelsey, the girl who’s loved him all his life, goes on with hers. Bel Powley is charming in this role, open and imperturbable in the face of Scott’s immaturity. And I love her goal in life: to come back home to Staten Island, after earning a degree in Manhattan, and make it as cool as Brooklyn. So will Scott come home to himself? Whatever happens, the film’s a winner, and Pete Davidson has done himself and his father proud. THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is dedicated to his dad, Scott Davidson, whose name Pete has claimed for his character in the film.