‘The King of Staten Island’ Haz a Sad

In the new Judd Apatow film, Pete Davidson plays a tattooed basket case whose firefighter dad died when he was a kid

In case you didn’t know, SNL funnyman Pete Davidson is a tattooed basket case whose firefighter dad died when he was a kid. In The King of Staten Island, Davidson plays Scott, a tattooed basket case whose firefighter dad died when he was a kid. Your enjoyment of The King of Staten Island rises and falls according to how sympathetic you are towards a tattooed basket case whose firefighter dad died when he was a kid. It also depends on how much you tolerate hearing these facts. Because the movie tells you them. Repeatedly.

Directed by: Judd Apatow
Written by: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus
Starring: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow, Steve Buscemi
Running time: 136 min

The King of Staten Island also takes place on the chronically derided New York borough of Staten Island. You know that because people constantly talk about how much it sucks, or how much they love it even though people say it sucks. You don’t really get a sense of what makes Staten Island special, or why people loathe it. It’s just a place where amiable working-class people live. “Why can’t we be cool like Brooklyn?” says a resident. Yeah, why not? Seriously, someone please tell me because I don’t really get much of a feeling for Staten Island. Looks like Sheepshead Bay or Flushing to me. But I digress.

Filmmaker and comic guru Judd Apatow, a Queens-born New Yorker who moved to Long Island as a boy and relocated to Los Angeles, conveys a generally authentic sense of the city without really capturing that titular borough. But he definitely nails the dramatic contours of a tattooed basket case whose firefighter dad died when he was a kid. That’s for sure. Because everybody keeps reminding us.

Scott is a 24-year-old dead-end pothead who lives in his mom’s basement. His mom is Marge (Marisa Tomei), an emergency-room nurse who seems to have given up on Scott but still dotes on him. Scott’s younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is going off to college. “I’m worried about you,” she tells him, because he’s such a basket case and also that dead dad thing.

King of Staten Island
Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in Judd Apatow’s ‘The King of Staten Island’.

Scott hangs out with Kelsey (Bel Powley) a grade school friend who is now a fuck buddy but wants something more. Scott can’t give that to her, though. “I don’t have my shit together,” he explains. Yep, we know.

Scott also hangs out with his stoner friends, making lots of stoner jokes and ribbing each other. They’re self-proclaimed losers, although Scott has vague ambitions to open a restaurant that’s also a tattoo parlor. He’d call it Ruby Tattoosdays. He’s a mediocre tattoo artist, which we know from all the warped, deformed faces he keeps tattooing on his friends. They don’t like the tats, but they don’t stop Scott from doing them. Or from trying to put a tattoo on a 9-year-old, either. Both of these things seem unrealistic at best and idiotic at worst.

That boy’s dad is Ray (Bill Burr), a gruff but lovable divorced dad who yells at Marge because Scott tried to tattoo his 9-year-old son. “Where’s his dad?” Ray asks Marge. “He’s deceased,” says Marge. That’s right, almost forgot. Ray apparently is also a fireman, and somehow tracked down Scott at his family house, but didn’t recognize the last name of his dead firefighter dad. Even though, later in the movie, Ray admits that he knew the dad. Again, unrealistic and kind of idiotic.

Ray starts to date Marge. Why not. Her husband was a firefighter, this guy is a firefighter. A bit on the nose, but OK. They both decide to get dinner at the place where Scott is busing tables. They think this is a good way to introduce Scott to the idea of them dating. And they also ask Scott to get them water and bread. Unrealistic and kind of idiotic? You be the judge.

“My dad’s dead,” repeats Scott at one point, just in case we weren’t paying attention. Yup, got it the first time. “I’m figuring my stuff out,” Scott says to another person. Right. Scott tries to sabotage his mom’s relationship with Ray. “Haven’t I been through enough?” he yells at his mom. Because you know why.

Eventually Scott hits rock bottom and slowly builds himself back up with an unexpected assist from the life-weathered men at the local firefighter house. It’s a sweet resolution that’s handled with lovely sentiment, but it also feels kind of forced.

Apatow has made other, better films about arrested development, from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Knocked Up to Trainwreck. He gets the inner child, the refusal to move forward, the panic about growing up and facing responsibilities. But those other films felt persuasive: fresh, surprisingly raunchy and unexpectedly touching. There’s something about The King of Staten Island that doesn’t quite gel in the same way. Maybe there’s too much self-awareness that this script is someone’s actual family tragedy. His heart is clearly in the right place, but there’s something weirdly inauthentic about so much authenticity.

Pete Davidson is a charmingly odd duck. “You look like an anorexic panda!” yells Kelsey in a particularly delicious burn. Why is he a star? Why are other stars drawn to him? Amy Schumer reportedly told Apatow about him, and Bill Hader was so smitten that he told Lorne Michaels to put him on Saturday Night Live. He’s milked the messed-up burnout for 6 years now, and the joke-laden anguish feels spent. Hopefully this movie is his way of exorcising those ghosts and moving on. “I miss my dad. A lot,” Scott confesses again towards the end. Boy, does he ever. “I’ll try to get it together,” he says. “I think it’ll always be hard.” Only if you dwell on it.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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