“The King of Staten Island” – “My dad, if you don’t know, was a fireman, and he died on 9/11. He was a very good dude, and I have a lot of jokes about it. If you don’t like the first one, you probably won’t like the rest.” – Pete Davidson
Yes, “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson’s father died on 9/11, and this talented comic and uber-producer/director/writer Judd Apatow partnered on “The King of Staten Island”, a sprawling comedy (almost dramedy) about an unmotivated, pot-smoking 24-year-old tattoo artist whose dad – a firefighter – passed away on the job.
In a June 7 “CBS Sunday Morning” interview, Davidson mentions off-camera that this movie is about 75 percent autobiographical. You see, both Davidson and his character Scott Carlin were seven when the said tragedies occurred. Both suffer from depression and also live with their moms in Staten Island.
Live with their moms?
Yes, and with Pete’s high profile career, he and his mom reside in a 1.3 million dollar home in S.I., while Scott and Margie (Marisa Tomei) live modestly. She’s an elementary school/ER nurse, and he’s unemployed, but to his credit, Scott still regularly catches “SpongeBob SquarePants” while lying on the living room sofa. In other words, the disparity in income is a portion of that remaining 25 percent, but Pete digesting daily doses of SpongeBob, Patrick, and Squidward doesn’t exactly seem like a wild fantasy.
This film is no madcap pipe dream, because a story about this struggling 20-something probably shouldn’t tonally fall into slapstick spaces, and Apatow – who isn’t afraid to mix drama and comedy – skillfully balances the two.
At the very outset, the picture jumps into a severe dramatic space and immediately flashes piercing warning signals the size of spotlights, as we quickly learn that Scott suffers from mental illness.
Immediately, the movie places us on our heels.
Our sympathies reach towards the screen and treat our protagonist with kid gloves, because he is a likable screwup. Who is Scott? Well, tattoos plaster his pasty, lanky body like a Paris street map, but with an alien head from “Mars Attacks” (1996) and a shark standing in for The Louvre and Jardin des Tuileries. This slacker burns daily calories by smoking weed, watching flicks like “The Purge” (2013), and hanging out at an abandoned orphanage’s basketball court, where the weeds regularly invade the asphalt playspace.
Scott and his buddies – Richie (Lou Wilson), Oscar (Ricky Velez) and Igor (Moises Arias) – aren’t reaching for their respective brass rings, and their inferiority complexes – whether they realize them or not – mirror their hometown of Staten Island, the least-celebrated New York borough.
This Four Horsemen of Lazy-ocalypse wobble in the same cinematic circles as New Jerseyans Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) of “Clerks” (1994) fame, but the Empire State boys carry even less conviction and pride than their out-of-state brothers from other mothers. Hey, at least Dante and Randal embrace some direction.
Scott and company don’t, as they couchsurf from one comfortable nest – that the 21st century forgot – to another. Soon, however, life forces Scott on one specific path – which might be easy to guess – as it drags him to adulthood, and his nails dig distinct, deep grooves in the earth.
The film’s first 70 minutes or so embrace this concept with hilarious, everyday moments stirred by Pete’s instinctual timing and effortless reaches into his most easily accessible memory banks. Scott frequently delivers guttural utterances of complete disbelief when facing the most rudimentary tasks, like accepting a simple job from a family member (Kevin Corrigan). He copes with several more.
Scott’s and Pete’s struggles are the same, so the anxiety-ridden Mr. Carlin’s predicament feels real.
Pete sells it, and we’re buying it all day.
As one would expect, Apatow successfully peddles many colorful supporting players, including Scott’s mom, his height-challenged friend Igor, and Ray Bishop (Bill Burr), who takes an interest in Margie. Burr is especially on-point here as a good-intentioned local fireman but is at his best when he loses his mind, which thankfully occurs a couple of times. Furthermore, Burr is not recognizable at all within his first 60 seconds of on-screen time, but his distinct smart-alecky tone and roundabout, old-school cadence bring some clarity to Ray’s initial anonymity.
Apatow doesn’t shy away from his usual signatures, but his thoughtful comedies run long and meander a bit (i.e., “Knocked Up” (2007), “Funny People” (2009) and “Trainwreck” (2015)). At 136 minutes, “The King of Staten Island” is no exception but when featuring a troubled kid with considerable problems as the lead, 90-minute versions of “Step Brothers” (2008), “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) or “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006) just won’t fit.
The remaining 66 minutes center around Scott’s growth, so the laughs do dissipate, and life’s lessons fill the void. Scott’s story is Pete’s, or 75 percent of it, which includes lingering heartbreak. Unlike Davidson’s standup routines, however, he and Apatow don’t include many – if any – jokes about Pete’s dad, as this personal film embraces our young hero’s humanity.
⭐⭐⭐1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
(“The King of Staten Island” arrives on VOD on June 12)
Image and Trailer credits: Universal Pictures