Producers: Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel Director: Judd Apatow Screenplay: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson and Dave Sirus Cast: Pete Davidson, Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow, Steve Buscemi, Pamela Adlon, Action Bronson, Kevin Corrigan, Ricky Velez, Moises Arias, Lou Wilson, Carly Aquilino, Jay Rodriguez, Luke David Blumm, Alexis Rae Forlenza, Jimmy Tatro, Giselle King, John Sorrentino, Dominick Lombardozzi, Rafael Poveriet, Colson Baker and Robert Smigel Distributor: Universal Pictures
At the start of Judd Apatow’s long but consistently engaging character study, a comedy-drama co-written in partially autobiographical mode by star Pete Davidson, you might think that you’d been transported back to Jason Orley’s “Big Time Adolescence,” which appeared a few months ago. Davidson played much the same character in it as he does here—a slacker spending most of his time in his mom’s haze-filled basement playing video games and ragging with his equally buzzed-out pals.
But in Orley’s movie, Davidson’s character of Zeke Presenti was basically a secondary one, the guy who gets a high-school kid who idolizes him into trouble. Zeke experiences a modest reformation at the end, but the turn is more jokingly implausible than keenly felt. By contrast Scott Carlin, in “The King of Staten Island,” is definitely at the center of things, and the transformation he undergoes much more than a throwaway final gag. Though its take on how a case of arrested development gets kick-started toward maturity follows a rather conventional path, the movie proves an agreeable, if extended, delayed-coming-of-age tale.
At his introduction Scott’s one of those twenty-something guys leading a totally aimless life. He does have a sort-of ambition—to become a tattoo artist—and a kind-of dream—to open a tattoo restaurant, where diners can watch people being tattooed. But it’s pretty obvious nothing will come of that. He still lives with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei), a nurse, and his younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow), and spends most of his time in the basement with his buds Oscar (Ricky Velez), Igor (Moises Arias) and Richie (Lou Wilson) playing video games, smoking weed and watching movies like “The Purge.” He also has a girlfriend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), a serious-minded charmer who wants to go into urban management to help turn their Staten Island home into a go-to destination. He’s known her since childhood, and they’re occasionally intimate, but every time she indicates a desire to get serious, he begs off, saying that he’s obviously an emotional mess.
It’s an excuse Scott falls back on whenever he’s obnoxious, which is often—as when he seems determined to ruin Claire’s high school graduation celebration before she goes off to college. He blames his abrasive ways on the trauma he suffered losing his father, a fireman who died doing his job, when he was only seven. It scarred him for life, even leading him, as we’re shown, to contemplate suicide by closing his eyes when driving on a busy freeway.
What changes things for Scott is an impulsive decision to give a nine-year old kid named Harold (Luke David Blumm) a tattoo. He doesn’t get far since Harold quickly pulls away, but it’s enough to send the boy’s apoplectic father Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) to the Carlin house, haranguing Margie about her irresponsible son. The upshot is that Margie and Ray will start dating, which drives Scott crazy, especially because Ray’s a fireman too. Scott will even be tasked with walking Harold and his sister Kelly (Alexis Rae Forlenza) to school, a situation that initially horrifies Ray’s ex Gina (Pamela Adlon), whom Scott pumps for dirt on Ray to break up Margie’s budding romance. Yet he and the kids get along fine.
The script adds a number of tangents that are cobbled rather lackadaisically onto the main narrative arc. One involves Scott’s unwilling employment as a busboy at a restaurant owned by a family friend (Kevin Corrigan), where Margie and Ray come for dinner one night and Kelsey brings a date to make Scott jealous. Another is a lengthy sequence in which Scott reluctantly agrees to serve as lookout for Oscar, Igor and Richie during their robbery a pharmacy—a botched job that proves a wake-up call for Scott.
The main trajectory, though, follows the grudging friendship that develops between Scott and Ray when, finally thrown out of the house by Margie (who also breaks it off with Ray), the young man seeks shelter at the firehouse, where he’s taken in as a sort of mascot. The crew treat him with the rough camaraderie they show to one another, but also give him a taste of what their work entails, and tell him stories about his father that he never knew.
The movie gets more than a little sentimental as it enters this home stretch—luckily Steve Buscemi is on hand to add a bit of vinegar as the squad captain, able even to deliver some of the most manipulative dialogue without succumbing to bathos. But it adds some spice via a funny-sad out-of-left-field episode featuring a seriously wounded man (Action Bronson) who wanders into the firehouse while Scott is alone minding the store. That leads to a hospital visit where Margie, Scott and Ray reunite, all embarrassed smiles, and a coda in which the newly-maturing Scott shares a ferry ride with Kelsey.
“The King of Staten Island” won’t win any awards for structural integrity—you can almost hear Apatow, Davidson and Dave Sirus bouncing ideas for scenes around and then shoehorning them into the screenplay whatever it takes. Nor, despite a fair amount of sharp lines, most assigned to Davidson, and some typically raucous Apatow action (that robbery sequence, a backyard brawl between Scott and Ray), is it a laugh-a-minute farce; even the comedic elements have an undertow of poignancy to them. The mixture doesn’t always work perfectly, but it’s less tonally jarring than one might have expected.
And the cast pulls it off. It’s difficult to know what range he might have, but playing himself—or at least the version of himself that he’s honed on “Saturday Night Live” and elsewhere—Davidson certainly holds your attention. Though he’s obviously the centerpiece here, Burr’s intensity makes him an able partner. All of the other actors have their moments, but Tomei and Powley, playing women who are both long-suffering in different ways, are especially winning in support. Robert Elswit’s cinematography and Kevin Thompson’s production design give everything a lived-in feel, and though at well over two hours the picture does overstay its welcome, the editing by Joy Cassidy, William Kerr and Brian Olds doesn’t feel unduly dilatory.
Pete Davidson might be an acquired taste, but at least in this case, it’s a taste worth sampling.