The King of Staten Island

He’s the poster child for his generation. Tatted on the outside, emotionally scarred on the inside, aimless. Smoking a lot of weed for the duration. Millennials who are set adrift can relate 

There’s something about Pete Davidson that’s weirdly endearing. The self-deprecating humor, his pride for blue-collar Staten Island, losing his firefighter dad in the 9/11 attacks and his increasing foothold in the comedy community. 

Fortunately for those who are intrigued by him, Davidson and his buddy/fellow SNL writer Dave Sirus have been chronicling his unique life. Their series of anecdotes and jokes got an assist from writer/director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up). Together the trio has created a comedy/drama that surprisingly runs a bit deeper than your average stoner movie.

He’s a deadbeat. At 24-years-old, Scott Carlin (Davidson) stills lives with his mom, Marge (Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny) an ER nurse, hangs out in the basement with his homeboys Oscar (Ricky Velez, The Night Show with Larry Wilmore), Igor (Moises Arias, Nacho Libre) and Ritchie (Lou Wilson, TV’s The Coop) and smokes spliff after spliff. Plus, he deals drugs to anyone who will buy—even minors. 

Scott’s biggest ambition is becoming a tattoo artist, and even that one dream is not pursued with gusto. Why? Cause the dude is always high. But in his defense, his dad’s tragic death casts a heavy, emotional and immobilizing funk over his entire being. Until, mom meets a new firefighter, Ray (Bill Burr, TV’s F Is for Family), who gives the selfless widow a reason to smile. Nothing shakes up a lazy millennial more than a new fox in the henhouse. 

The first act of the film sets up the characters, creates an anxious atmosphere and drags you into a household mired in passive conflict. There’s mom, stoic, loving but lonely. Son, a dour reminder that life is unfair. And a spritely younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow), who is as ambitious and academic as Scott is lazy and clueless. Claire: “Mom he looks like he sells crack under a bridge.” The clash of cultures begins as the middle-aged interloper forces mom to pick between dopey son and sex-crazed paramour. This is when an intermittently clunky and funny movie becomes a redemption-seeking family drama.

In the increasingly thoughtful script, Scott’s debilitating angst finally shows some shifts and cracks. It’s a process that becomes more endearing as the embittered son wrestles with his depression. Scott: “There’s something wrong with me mentally. Up there.” As the overly talky dialogue gives way and the day-in-a-life character-study morphs, an inkling of personal growth evolves and the movie finds its purpose. A bigger picture narrative. A welcomed surprise. 

But for those just tuning in for a good laugh, don’t hit the remote just yet. There are guffaws upon guffaws. Funny banter: Scott berates his Aunt Joy. Scot: “Eat a d—k Joy.” Joy: “I had one for breakfast.” Sight gags: Igor has a tattoo of a cat around his bellybutton that is in a vulnerable position. Clumsy physical humor: Ray and Scott duke it out like two seniors in a nursing home. 

Apatow knows this turf well. Finding humanity in dark comedy is his thing and his absurd sense of humor helps. He also pulls very sensitive performances from his cast and his comic timing is pretty good. Though, at 2h 16min, it might have helped if film editors Jay Cassidy, William Kerr and Brian Scott Olds had insisted that Apatow do some judicious snipping. Ten minutes here and there. Less footage would make viewers happier campers. 

Cinematographer Robert Elswit won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood, a very difficult shoot with gorgeous footage. Oddly this film looks like it was shot on an iPhone—and not a new one. That said, what you’re viewing, from lighting, to composition to tacky interiors, looks like the real thing. That’s thanks to his lensing.

The Carlin family’s basement, the firehouses and backyards all look genuine because they were shot on location in Staten Island. Wisely, the filmmakers skipped studio backlots and trudged over to the original home of the Wu-Tang Clan and minor league baseball team Staten Island Yankees. Production designer Kevin Thompson (Birdman and Ad Astra) makes every scene scream we’re “the forgotten borough.” So do the sets (David Schlesinger, Knives Out), the worn clothes that look like they were bought at Target (costume designer Sara Mae Burton, Blockers), the dull colors (art director Nick Francone, TV’s Bull) and the quirkyblend of background music (Michael Andrews, Bridesmaids). 

Marisa Tomei is a welcome addition to any cast, and as a Brooklyn-born actress, she brings an authentic touch of NYC. Especially in the scenes where she administers tough love to her disheveled son and needy boyfriend. The young ensemble cast of Velez, Arias, Wilson and Apatow are perfectly augmented by the very tough street-girl performance by Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) who plays Scott’s f—k buddy. Watching these twentysomethings is like watching an episode of MTV’s Jersey Shore–2020. If an award is given to anyone in the cast besides Davidson and Tomei, it should go to comedian Bill Burr who makes Ray a tangible loser, lover and clumsy surrogate father.

If you put your nose in the air, and follow the strong scent of weed, it will take you back to Pete Davidson. He is completely charming and humble in a role that cuts so close to the bone. Funny, sardonic, angry, bitter and in need of a hug. He pulls you into the character. You have to want him to find a better life. The average eye won’t discern any difference between Pete and Scott. Just keep in mind one is now a wealthy comedian and kick-starting a movie career. 

The King of Staten Island could have been better. But for those looking for a laugh and an urban movie with heart, it’s more than good enough. 

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