The introduction to Scott Carlin, the titular King of Staten Island, shows him driving down the highway. He intentionally closes his eyes while still driving, waffling between cracking them back open or keeping them shut. Eventually this will end poorly. When he does finally open his eyes, he narrowly misses what is almost certainly a fatal car accident. He does still sideswipe one car and just keeps driving on, viewing the damage he’s left behind him in the rear view mirror. He mutters apologies to himself, and only then does it become clear that he was unbuckled the entire time; his carelessness knows no bounds. In this short scene, we are introduced to the self-destructive mode that Scott is living within.
The fact Scott is played by Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson, who in recent years has had his own very public real-life struggle with self harming behavior makes the opening that much more jarring and unnerving. It is a brilliant opening that sets the table for the next two hours and 15 minutes, and even if it starts with its best shot, there is a lot to explore still ahead.
The real-life comparison between Scott and Davidson doesn’t end there. Both hail from the forgotten Borough. Both have firefighting fathers who both lost their lives in the line of duty. Both have a deeply knowledgeable love for East Coast hip-hop classics. Davidson’s own copious amount of tattoos becomes a driving character trait for Scott. These similarities aren’t a mistake; they are instead mostly the point. Scott is Davidson, or at least a worst-case scenario version of him.
Staten Island works within one of Judd Apatow’s favorite methods of storytelling: to take the core identity, or at least public perception, of a well-known comedian and dial it up to 11. Seth Rogen as the affable slacker in Knocked Up; Adam Sandler as the frustrated movie star in Funny People; Amy Schumer as the drink-loving gal on the town in Trainwreck. The King of Staten Island probably has the most in common with Funny People, in that the depiction for most of the film is not entirely sympathetic but is driven by truly felt emotional context. Davidson and Apatow co-write the film with assistance from SNL writer Dave Sirus, and it is difficult to not read as a response to what has been an embattled public perception of Davidson for a few years now.
Steve is an aspiring tattoo artist who spends most of his time smoking weed at his friends house. He still lives at home with his widowed mother Margie (Marisa Tomei in a wonderful performance) and his younger sister Claire (played by Maude Apatow, Judd’s daughter) is leaving for college. Steve also has a long-time friend with benefits named Kelsey (Bel Powley, also fantastic) that he has been evading any commitment with. If this all feels somewhat familiar, it is because it is the sort of character sketch that Apatow has worked with for most of his career: affable losers who struggle with their arrested development. But in the hands of Davidson, the performance is slightly more muted, quiet suppression and subtle gestures. In general, this feels like Apatow’s most contained work. There is no real high concept, but rather a series of character moments that provide an intimate portrayal of someone struggling internally.
The primary conflict of the film appears when Margie decides it is finally time to start dating. Scott is initially supportive, almost inappropriately, of his mother’s re-blossoming sex life. But he quickly grows angry he learns that her new boyfriend Ray (Bill Burr) is also a firefighter. He vehemently argues, both to Margie and Ray, that firefighters being in relationship with other people is irresponsible and selfish as their very lives are vulnerable, and they risk leaving behind people who have to live with their death. It becomes clear that Scott keeps people at a distance due to fear of hurting someone unintentionally, causing pain through his own actions. Remember him apologizing after the car crash? He is happy to do ultimate harm to himself, as long as he doesn’t hurt anyone around him.
The greatest strength and greatest weakness of the film is Davidson at the center. The film is pitched as pseudo-autobiographical, Scott serves as a cipher for Davidson to work through his own depression and demons within the framework of a very loose story. There are enough differences between him and Scott that he keeps the real scars at arm’s length. Because of this approach, his performance is often so naturalistic as to be muted. It can come across as detached at points, or at its worst simply going through the motions. It hardly feels like acting, because the film functions and pivots on him being himself throughout.
That sometimes works and gives a platform for him to give brutally honest work, and sometimes it allows him to lay back. The best moments of Staten Island are when he relates with other actors in naturalistic and emotional ways to give the other actors chances to shine; his scenes with Powley are particularly effective because he seems to be locked in genuine emotion and Powley is providing a fully realized performance of an interesting character: a loyal Staten Island native who wants to make it the next Brooklyn, elevating their status. Scenes that ask for bigger work, especially when he is competing with Burr over his mother’s affection, lack the same authenticity.
While Davidson serves as that center of the wheel, the typical Apatow ensemble work is sprinkled throughout. Beyond the standouts of Tomei and Powley, perhaps the most interesting ensemble members include Moises Arias as Igor, a diminutive and soft-spoken member of Scott’s gang of bums who brags about his online girlfriend, and a very locked-in performance from Steve Buscemi as “Papa”, an elder member of the Staten Island fire department who knew Scott’s father.
The tone of the film is somewhat difficult to pin down; Apatow’s comedy, ever since his earliest work as a showrunner on Freaks and Geeks, has always been character-centric. But there has always been a sense of joke structure to even his most grounded work in the past. Moments of short comedy set-pieces reminiscent of 40-Year-Old Virgin are sparsely peppered throughout (a scene where waiters at the restaurant that hires Scott briefly have to box for their tips comes to mind), but the movie is too focused on trauma to ever spiral into broader comedy for long. This is a movie about how personal pain has ripples and long-term aftershocks, and the amount of time it has for “bits” is few and far between.
Ultimately, The King of Staten Island is an unflinching depiction of a person struggling to connect with the people around him due to crippling depression. The general perception of Davidson ever since his public meltdown is someone who suffered in a very visible way for the rest of the world to gawk towards. This film digs into the pain beneath the surface and attempts to shape a loose narrative around that; the end result is uneven, but never lacks for honesty or vulnerability. If Davidson wanted to take back control of his own narrative, there are worse platforms to stage that argument than an imminently watchable Apatow dramedy. Even in the moments where it doesn’t live up to the high points like its opening, it never feels false.
The King of Staten Island is now available for rental as a home premiere on most major video platforms.