“The King of Staten Island” is one of those movies which has a particular charm because of its willingness to lay bare the soul of its lead actor, who in this case happens to also be part of the film’s creative team. Pete Davidson is primarily known for his being a part of the “Saturday Night Live” cast, as well as a number of primarily romantic comedies. However this time, the spotlight is squarely on him for carrying the weight of a relatively intimate character drama.
The film centers on Davidson as Scott Carlin, a 24-year old self-professed druggy-bum who still lives at home with his widowed mother and college-bound sister. His key aspiration is to be a tattoo artist, even though he neither has developed any particular talent for it (his devoted closest friends have continually let him practice on them, becoming random hodgepodge of poor art and ill-conceived placement).
When his mother, Margie (played by Marisa Tomei) meets and begins dating Firefighter Ray Bishop (played by Bill Burr), Scott starts to unravel. It’s not the fact that she’s dating again that has him so unsettled, but rather that his own father (Margie’s dead husband), had also been a Fireman and died in the line of duty. So his feelings of anger of perceived abandonment by his father (even from before he had been killed), find ample target in the less than ideal figure of Ray.
Add in Ray’s ex-wife and his two children, coming in from their own angle, and it’s a close-focus small-issues but deeply heartfelt story of families trying to adjust to their respective struggles and find their own way. They’re not trailer-trash, but neither are they even upper-middle class, they’re not idiots (though Scott is clearly self-aware enough as not the brightest tool in the shed), not are they going to particularly cure cancer. However none of them are bad people, they’re flawed but want to do well.
Director and co-writer Judd Apatow has had a long line of character-introspective stories, including the criminally underrated “Freaks and Geeks” television series. Taking his characters and crafting them around an actor so well that it seems almost that he would always have the actor to play them in mind before putting pencil to paper. Of course that’s doubly so with Davidson sharing the film’s writing credit. The film isn’t huge in scope. There’s no cities to be saved of kingpins to be subdued. It’s a straightforward and simple, and the performances make it at least worth watching. Tomei and Davidson center the film strongly enough to keep it from devolving into caricatures.
Davidson has been public about his struggles with depression and drug abuse, and so much of his interviews and stories find their echos in Scott’s self-destructive nature. You can see him being entirely aware of when he is torpedoing himself, yet unable to stop him you can’t help but feel an empathy that there’s more than the normal amount of truth in what he’s throwing into his performance.
It’s not going to be a film that gets many nominations this year, and you may not even remember it that much in a few months time. However if you want to see what kind of performance Davidson is able to dish out, give it a try. Yes the promo images shirtless and covered with tattoos gives a strange impression of a discount Jared Leto-style Joker, but don’t let that dissuade you.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.
“The King of Staten Island” is Rated R and available via Video on Demand.