Review: In ‘The King of Staten Island,’ Pete Davidson Rules Supreme

Director Judd Apatow helps comedian Pete Davidson tell his coming-of-age story. 

Thanks to the breakout success of his feature film debut, The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Judd Apatow was appointed as the comic voice of his generation, inspiring a flock of rowdy man-child comedies. Drawing upon his own experiences, as well as those of his friends and colleagues, Apatow appeared more than happy to help shepherd other, like minded comedy-dramas to popular, and sometimes critical, success, either as co-writer or producer. 

In his own films, Apatow has become progressively more pointed and personal in his comedy, first with Knocked Up (2007) and then with Funny People (2009), the latter of which appeared to be directly inspired by his own experiences working with Garry Shandling on his television shows. Apatow’s This Is 40 (2012) felt like a summary of his life to that point, featuring his real-life domestic partner Leslie Mann and their children among the cast of comic players, while also giving exposure to a younger generation of comic actors, like Lena Dunham. 

After that, among other projects, Apatow worked with Dunham on her HBO series Girls, with comedian Amy Schumer on her film Trainwreck (2015), and with comedian Pete Holmes on his HBO series Crashing. Now he has worked with comedian Pete Davidson to cowrite The King of Staten Island, once again helping a younger person to tell a fictionalized version of their life story in narrative form. 

The young comedian got his big break on Saturday Night Live and since then has been faced with public notoriety for the way he has dealt with private issues. At its heart, The King of Staten Island appears to be a familiar tale of a man-child who needs to grow up. 

Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) lives in a comfortable home in Staten Island, New York, with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and younger sister Carlie (Maude Apatow), who is preparing to head off to college. Floundering in his mid-20s, Scott hangs out in the basement with his three good buddies, smoking dope and playing video games, while fooling around sexually with their childhood buddy Kelsey (Bel Powley), who dares to think about her future. 

Scott, Margie, and Carlie function as a collective group study of grief and its long term effects upon a family. As a young boy, Scott’s firefighter father died on the job, and Scott never got over it, which accentuates his learning limitations. Margie recovered by throwing all her time and energy into Scott, leaving Carlie, who never knew her father, to become the most well-adjusted person in the family. 

Even though he is 24 and has demonstrated talent as an artist, Scott would rather fritter away his time not thinking about things, but he is forced into a reckoning when Carlie begins dating Ray Bishop (Bill Burr), a divorced firefighter with two young children. 

Written by Apatow, Davidson, and Dave Sirus, the screenplay is overly ambitious, seeking to uncover every rock possible that might have meaning for Scott Carlin and his family. As with Apatow’s other films, especially starting with Funny People, the narrative meanders down sometimes baffling side roads with no apparent purpose in mind, except to include one more funny line or allow one more new or underexposed performer a few moments of screen time. 

It’s an incredibly generous approach that is messy and ungainly, yet Apatow has done this time and time again, so it’s clearly a method that he prefers. Having this in mind in advance of watching The King of Staten Island helps, because it prepares one to anticipate the inevitable side roads. 

Eventually, however, Apatow sails the boat to its intended destination and docks it in a safe harbor. Thus, his latest film reflects his own artistic impulses, while also showcasing Pete Davidson’s talent for drawing ribald humor from the pains of personal experience. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, June 12, via Universal Pictures and a variety of Video On Demand services.