Aimlessness, tragedy, grief, trauma, depression, mental illness, thoughts of suicide — all these things figure in The King of Staten Island. It’s a comedy because, well, laughs (along with some weed) can help you get through life. That life belongs to Pete Davidson, the youngest (he’s 26) and quirkiest current cast member on SNL, who’s figured the movie is at least 75 percent him. He’s playing a differently named version of himself who’s not an established comedian but an aspiring tattoo artist — better to think of it as the same story if Davidson never found comedy but still managed to find himself. And the result is both emotional and a comic knockout.
Whatever you call this hilarious and sneakily heartfelt raunchfest — written by Davidson with his pal Dave Sirus and director Judd Apatow — there’s no dismissing it with a shrug. Davidson is putting himself out there, showing a real actor’s gift for using humor and nuance to go to dark places; you feel the pain under the clowning, and he’s shaping his life into something funny, touching and vital. It’s a matter of record that Davidson was just seven when he lost his firefighter father on 9/11. He admits he never got over it. Neither did Scott, the character Davidson plays using his dad’s first name.
The parallels don’t stop there. Scott still lives in Staten Island with his nurse mother Margie (Marisa Tomei). He suffers from asthma, Crohn’s disease and bouts of trying to off himself by driving with his eyes closed. Unlike Davidson, Scott never hits the tabloids for dating Ariana Grande, Kate Beckinsale and model Kaia Gerber. His doppelganger are more likely to hang out in mom’s basement vaping with his friends while watching The Purge.
Those basement scenes — “I love it here, man, it’s safe,” says Scott — are what kick the movie into Apatow territory as Scott shoots the shit with his crew, including Oscar (Ricky Velez), Igor (Moises Arias) and Richie (Lou Wilson). Also on hand is Kelsey (a roaringly good Bel Powley), who can’t understand why the guys “sit here all day smoking weed and jerking each other off.” Scott has sex with Kelsey but only on the side. Why the big secret? “We’ve known each other since fourth grade, it would be like incest,” he says. But his reluctance goes deeper: “There’s something wrong with me mentally, like I’m not OK. I get all manic and crazy and make impulsive decisions. I’m scared of myself.”
That’s the thing about The King of Staten Island — you can always feel the tension underlying the jokes. Scott says he hates Staten Island (“We’re like the only place New Jersey looks down on”), but he can’t leave it. His sister Claire (Maude Apatow, the director’s daughter) is off to college and worried about leaving her art-school-dropout brother alone to pursue his unrealistic goal of opening a tattoo restaurant. To Claire, the idea is gross. To Scott, it’s better than college. His grandfather, played by Davidson’s paternal grandfather Stephen, not only agrees — he also points out that the Unibomber went to Harvard, Bill Cosby and Ted Bundy attended Temple and Donald Trump graduated from Wharton. Point taken.
Scott’s disturbingly arrested development is hardest on his mother, luminously acted by the My Cousin Vinny Oscar winner Tomei. Scott isn’t the only family member affected by his father’s death. Margie has put her personal life on hold. A friend, giving Margie’s body an approving once-over, says, “You’re wasting all this, it’s like leaving food on the table.” Margie soon provides tough love by giving her son nine months to find his own apartment. She then starts dating firefighter Ray Bishop (stand-up comic Bill Burr), a divorced father with a gambling habit and a bad temper. None of this sits well with Scott Memories of his dad intensify when Scott starts doing odd jobs around the firehouse and kibitzing with old timers, one of whom is played with warmth and finely burnished wisdom by Steve Buscemi, a former firefighter himself. Stories are told about Scott’s dad doing coke and being hilarious. But as Margie explains, “He was also out of control, like Ray. I have a type.”
Apatow, of course, is the hitmaker behind The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Trainwreck, and that last film resembles this one in the way it turned the life of screenwriter-star Amy Schumer into a romcom without sanding off the rough edges. And once again, the director is exceptionally skilled at bringing out the best in an ensemble cast. Each actor has a chance to shine, including Better Things‘ creator Pamela Adlon as Ray’s ex-wife. At 136 minutes, The King of Staten Island may strike some as needlessly drag-ass. But Apatow lets the movie breathe without losing its internal dynamism. He takes his time to let us see the sheer effort required for Scott to move past his self-destructive grief, get on that ferry into Manhattan and maybe take a baby step toward a fresh start. No miracle cures here or a bullshit happy ending. It’s better than that. And so is Davidson, who turns this comic portrait of an artist as a young fuck-up into one of the year’s best movies.