Starring Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, and Bill Burr. Available for streaming on June 12
Early in The King of Staten Island, a character tells Pete Davidson’s Scott, “Your dark humour doesn’t work for me.” Whether it does for you will have a lot to do with whether you enjoy Judd Apatow’s effort to turn Davidson into a leading man, leaning heavily on a biographical storyline.
On Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, through a huge toothy grin, Davidson has made his name making people squirm—joking about his borderline personality disorder and being a “mentally ill community-college dropout who got a Game of Thrones tattoo before watching the show”. The overall experience of watching The King of Staten Island offers the same uncomfortable humour, with fewer laughs. That is, until the genuinely likable side characters are introduced.
At first, Davidson’s arrested development is amusing: he spends his days smoking weed and playing video games in the basement, musing stoned about opening a tattoo restaurant one day. At 24, he still lives at home, his only accomplishment inking bad tattoos on his friends (“Obama ain’t right!” one says). He can’t seem to move beyond infrequent hookups with an old friend Kelsey (an excellent Bel Bowley as a mall-rat chatterbox). He may make jokes to his friends about his firefighter dad’s death—but early on, we see him slam the accelerator of his car on a highway for no apparent reason, racing recklessly through traffic.
The parallels to Davidson’s own, wide-open-book life are obvious here. His own firefighter dad died in 9-11; Davidson too has Crohn's disease; and during his quarantine-era broadcasts for SNL at least, he still lives in his mom’s basement. In appearances during those episodes, his mother seems endlessly understanding and loving. Playing her here, Marisa Tomei brings much-needed warmth and heart to The King of Staten Island.
Her Margie has sacrificed her life to Scott and his sister, but when she meets a new fireman (a fantastic Bill Burr) everything—including what has felt like an aimless movie—starts to change. Burr, gamely sporting a larger-than-life ginger ‘stache, brings the same, complex bundle of contradictions that he does to his standup: flying into blood-vessel-popping rants, feeling instantly bad about them, and proving himself lovable despite his endless faults—a quality Davidson has not quite cracked. In the movie, he’s the foil Scott needs—a guy to kick his ass and to show him how to be more selfless.
Some of the most revelatory, vulnerable scenes involve Scott walking divorced dad Ray’s two small kids to school, holding their hands and chatting about cartoons with them. It makes for an unlikely but striking sight, given the manchild's full-sleeve tattoos and white legs sticking like long straws out of his baggy basketball shorts.
But do we get to know Davidson better, as he seems to want? As expected, the comedian, who cowrote the movie, fills The King of Staten Island with inside references to his blue-collar hometown, portrayed here as a sort of dumpy, drug-addled sister to hipper ‘burgs like Brooklyn. Similarly, he casts the film with real friends and family, from the guys in the firehall to his tattoo mentor.
But it’s hard to get inside Davidson’s head, much beyond the bemused, slacker deadpan we know from the SNL skits—the vaguely unreadable, sunken-eyed look. Maybe it’s just that the film has caught the same laid-back listlessness of its antihero, refusing to work too hard for laughs. There’s heart here, but not a lot of energy. For some, though, just the sight of the guy Kelsey so aptly describes as an “anorexic panda” will be entertaining enough.