“The King of Staten Island” tries to get Pete Davidson to grow up

The King of Staten Island Pete Davidson as Scott in "The King of Staten Island," directed by Judd Apatow.

Judd Apatow’s latest is just as shaggy and meandering as his usual fare, but boasts a surprising turn from Pete Davidson.

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Judd Apatow makes comedies in the gloopy, formless shape of prestige character dramas: Funny People, Trainwreck and This is 40 are all two-plus-hour odes to the innate self-destructiveness of upper-middle-class white people, tales of lovable fuckups with just enough disposable income to get away with waiting until mid-to-late adulthood to get their shit together. The King of Staten Island breaks that mold in one important way in that its characters are younger, poor and working-class, and their antics actually put them in the proximity of danger and incarceration. And in that respect, it can find some modest ways to break the mold. But in a lot of others, it’s the same old story.

This time, Apatow’s eye turns to Pete Davidson, one of the most curious figures of the modern comedy environment. He’s acerbic without being particularly funny, leaning mostly on his droll wit and curious appearance (a lanky, Jersey boy coated in tattoos and streetwear; he looks like if someone put Post Malone in one of those medieval stretching machines) to get laughs. Here, Davidson leans hard on his own life story — having a firefighter dad who died on 9/11, his Crohn’s disease, his struggles with depression and suicidal ideation — to play Scott, a 24-year-old slacker whiling away his life on Staten Island while living with his mother (Marisa Tomei) and bugging his more ambitious sister (Maude Apatow) as she leaves for college.

The King of Staten Island
The King of Staten Island (Universal)

Like the film itself, Scott is aimless, a boy frozen in adolescence (a… Big Time Adolescence, if you will) by the memory of his dead father and an inherent disconnect from the world around him. He does nothing but sit on the couch all day and smokes weed with his friends (including Moises Arias as Igor, one of the only friends who pushes back against Scott’s shrugging misanthropy) and has an unfulfilling sexual relationship with a friend with benefits played with admirable frustration by Bel Powley. But his stalled momentum is interrupted after a reckless bid to tattoo a 9-year-old puts him in the orbit of the boy’s firefighter father Ray (Bill Burr), who ends in insinuating himself in Scott’s life and even starting to date his mother.

As expected, this starts to gradually upend Scott’s grand plan to do and be nothing for the rest of his life. Ray being a firefighter reminds him too much of his dad, and he rankles at the prospect of a sense of normalcy he doesn’t deserve. Self-destructiveness is at the core of Scott’s being: early in the film, Scott closes his eyes while driving to see just how long he can go before he crashes. He sabotages his friendships and relationships and a job at a local restaurant. He doesn’t even put in the time and rigor it takes to follow his real dream of being a tattoo artist (as a run-in with Machine Gun Kelly informs him). So naturally, the prospect of being part of a nuclear family with Ray at the center rankles.

It’s these moments where King of Staten Island finds a semblance of form and poignance. Davidson is strong here, chiefly because he’s playing himself (and he co-wrote the script with Apatow and Dave Sirus). But Apatow knows how to wring out some interesting pathos from Davidson’s personal brand of lackadaisical comic nihilism. He’s the kind of lazy jackass who says edgy shit, but still maintains a veneer of kindness and decency — he’s a nice guy who doesn’t give a shit about himself and can’t concentrate long enough to make any positive changes.

Put him in a room with Burr (who himself has been having a field day with great performances about strangely wholesome middle-aged white guys lately) or Pamela Adlon as Ray’s cynical ex, and Davidson bounces off them well. But there’s still an airy formlessness to Scott; we know why he is, but not who he is, and his frustratingly limited depth of character is stretched especially thin over Staten Island‘s 139-minute running time.

The King of Staten Island
The King of Staten Island (Universal)

And that’s the major problem with Apatow’s approach — he doesn’t know how to kill his darlings. There are three or four different approaches to this story that all get shoved in, with languid episodes that teach us little about the character of Scott but just seem darkly funny to Apatow and Davidson. When Action Bronson shows up in a cameo as a guy bleeding from the stomach for unknown and vaguely-explained reasons, it’s a funny setpiece, but what’s the point? What does it teach us about Scott? Same goes for a botched pharmacy robbery where Scott’s so disengaged he doesn’t help when it goes sour because he’s too busy swiping profiles on Tinder. It’s hard to invest in a film about a character who has to learn to care when the script is as aimless as its lead.

As the last act sees Scott finally pulling up his pants and starting his journey to adulthood (putting him in the company of Ray’s firefighter friends, including a winning Steve Buscemi), King of Staten Island starts to get its act together, if a bit too conventionally. But as one character quips after Scott prides himself on a hard day’s work, you can’t pat yourself on the back for doing the bare minimum, especially when it’s too little, too late. Same goes for King of Staten Island, a potentially insightful comedy about the crippling nature of grief and mental illness buried under piles of aimless meandering.

The King of Staten Island comes to digital and on demand June 12th.

The King of Staten Island Trailer:

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