The men and women who populate Judd Apatow’s cinematic universe are works in progress—emotionally stunted adults in need of a wake-up call, which usually comes via a transformative life event. In the King of Staten Island, Apatow has perhaps found a new muse in Pete Davidson, whose semi-autobiographical movie The King of Staten Island is a departure from form. Like the rest of Apatow’s movies, his latest is far too long, but at least it’s different—a reprieve from cataloging the neuroses of the bourgeoisie of Los Angeles to try something new, to middling success.
Scott (Pete Davidson, tightly wound) is a 24-year-old man dealing with the long tail of his firefighter father’s death, living in his mother’s basement on Staten Island. A wannabe tattoo artist with little to no drive, Scott spends the majority of his time sitting on the couch, playing video games, getting high, and occasionally sleeping with Kelsey (Bel Powley), a friend who sees in him the potential that he cannot. Scott lives with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and his sister Claire (Maude Apatow), and it is clear from their relationship that these women have spent the majority of their lives coddling his needs and tiptoeing around mood swings, explaining away most of his bad behavior as the result of his unprocessed trauma from his father’s death.
Scott’s friends (Ricky Velez, Moisés Arias and Lou Wilson) are layabouts with good hearts and Kelsey, the woman he sleeps with but cannot commit to, is on his side, but eventually gives up because, unfortunately, he’s sort of an asshole. The first hour or so of the movie moves like molasses, interspersed with quick set pieces meant to demonstrate the depth of Scott’s trauma and how it has calcified. An early conversation between Scott and Kelsey about the difficulty of achieving orgasm while on anti-depressants is refreshing in its candor, but it is the only bright spot in the first hour or so, which drags in a way that feels intentional, as if Staten Island’s inertia has anything to do with Scott’s failure to launch.
The real drama of this lackadaisical hero’s journey comes when Scott gives a tattoo to a 12-year-old boy he meets on the beach. Ray (a mustachioed Bill Burr), the father of said child, shows up apoplectic with rage at Scott’s doorstep, but eventually starts to date Margie. For Scott, dating a firefighter 17 years after the death of his father is a step too far. His reaction to his mother’s attempt at happiness and moving on with her life is outsized, that of a child rather than a grown man. It is precisely because of this reaction that he finds himself kicked out of the basement and looking for a place to call home, albeit temporary, until he figures himself out. Unsurprisingly, that place is the firehouse where Ray lives and works. The men take Scott under their collective wing and adopt him like one might a stray dog, teaching him some form of responsibility, but also, in some roundabout way, how to be a man.
Part of the reluctant appeal of watching an Apatow movie is the relatability of its characters, who speak and act just enough like people to seem like they’re real and not fiction. Unlike Apatow’s other works, which focus on the internecine strife of rich white people in Los Angeles, The King of Staten Island lets the titular borough’s dirtbag charm shine, from the view of Manhattan’s skyline from the stadium where the minor-league Staten Island Yankees play to the groaning Staten Island Ferry making its way across the water to the big city. It would be easy to make Staten Island a punchline, but Apatow doesn’t lean into this impulse. Kelsey, Scott’s occasional fuckbuddy, is so devoted to Staten Island that she dreams of one day making it as cool and as hip as Williamsburg, in a stirring cry for gentrification for a borough that remains impervious to this threat.
Reckoning with the proper way to be an adult is a theme that is consistent in Apatow’s work; Seth Rogen’s affable stoner turned dad in Knocked Up and Amy Schumer’s party-girl disaster in Trainwreck are two prime examples. Pete Davidson’s Scott is very much like Pete Davidson, the real person, and the similarities between the two make it difficult to separate the art from the artist. The real Pete Davidson lies in his mother’s basement on Staten Island and also lost his firefighter father at a young age. The real Pete Davidson also shares the same mordant sense of humor, brandishing it as a means of dealing with unresolved grief. The real Pete Davidson might also be the kind of adult that the fictional Scott is—emotionally stunted, in need of therapy, and wrestling with the after-effects of a prolonged bereavement. Giving Davidson the space to work out his shit in a movie that runs over two hours long is kind, but as a movie, The King of Staten Island feels a little bit like a higher-budget expansion of Alive From New York, Davidson’s excellent Netflix standup special—loose and meandering, in ways that don’t translate to film as well as one might think. It’s as if Davidson is merely playing another version of himself, incapable of stretching beyond the bounds of his own personality and his own life—not necessarily his fault, but definitely the fault of the material.
There’s little to be said, good or bad, about Davidson’s star turn, though, because try as he might to act, he’s just doing an extended bit. There’s a pathos to Davidson that is alluring; underneath the tattoos and the Crohn’s disease and all the weed is a man that probably cares a lot about his family and about being a good man, whatever that means. It’s not that the end result isn’t pleasing, but the journey to get there is arduous.