Pete Davidson wants you to know that he is more than just a meme. At only 27 years old, the “Saturday Night Live” star has courted gossip—and controversy—many times in recent memory. There were the whirlwind romances with pop star Ariana Grande and actress Kate Beckinsale. There were also the times he insulted House Representative and Iraq War veteran Dan Crenshaw during a segment of “Weekend Update,” and the time he compared the Catholic church to R. Kelly in that to support both was to support pedophilia, only “one’s music is better.” Davidson was the butt of jokes both cheekily reverential (the acronym “BDE,” which stands for “big dick energy,” spawned from a Twitter user commenting on what they perceived as mismatched attractiveness in the Ariana Grande/Pete Davidson pairing), and mean-spirited (a different Twitter user commented that Pete Davidson has “butthole eyes”).
Pete Davidson, to his credit, takes his fame, good and bad, in stride. His comedy style is self-deprecating and vulnerable. He is also honest: through his stand-up and in interviews, he has spoken candidly about his struggles with Crohn’s disease, borderline personality disorder, self-harm, drug addiction, and his father’s death (his father Scott Matthew Davidson was an NYC firefighter who died on September 11, 2001).
It is for these reasons that “The King of Staten Island” sometimes feels like a Pete Davidson biopic wrapped neatly in Judd Apatow packaging. Pete Davidson plays Scott Carlin, an aspiring tattoo artist who lives on Staten Island with his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei). Scott’s sister Claire (Apatow’s daughter Maude Apatow) leaves for college at the beginning of the film, and many characters try to use her ambition to light a fire under Scott to grow up. Scott, like many Apatow protagonists, is happy to laze about with his other slacker friends and use them as human canvases to practice his tattoo skills. One day, a neighborhood 11-year-old named Harold (Luke David Blumm) happens upon Scott and his posse in a park and demands that Scott tattoo him. Scott gets in one line of a “Punisher” logo before Harold runs away screaming and tattles to his dad Ray (Bill Burr). Ray angrily confronts Margie but confesses to her that he has a short fuse due to a recent divorce. Ray takes Margie out for coffee by way of apology and the two begin dating. Scott is furious at their relationship for many reasons, chief among them that Ray is a firefighter and Scott’s late father was a firefighter who died in a fire (the movie, wisely, does not reference 9/11; Scott’s father died saving people in a hotel fire on Staten Island).
Many elements of “The King of Staten Island” depend upon the viewer knowing about both Pete Davidson’s life and Judd Apatow’s oeuvre. Many jokes are lifted straight from Pete Davidson’s Netflix special “Alive In New York,” but without knowing that context, the jokes seem to come out of nowhere. The movie opens with a surprisingly dark attempted-suicide scene, which unfortunately is not addressed for the rest of the movie. Most of Judd Apatow’s works deal with overgrown man- and woman-children who need to grow up, and while Scott fits that bill, jokes about how only losers live with their parents as adults aren’t as biting as they were 10 years ago, seeing as how 15% of Millennials now live with their parents out of economic necessity, not lack of ambition. Many characters’ insistence that Scott needs to go to college to get his life together seem out of touch as well. It seems cruel to force Scott to take on a lot of student debt when his heart isn’t really in it.
That said, if there’s one thing that this movie gets really right, it’s the heart. The viewer gets the sense that Scott’s vulnerability is Davidson’s vulnerability, as Scott unpacks unresolved grief about his father’s death and his belief that he doesn’t deserve success due to a perfect storm of mental issues, such as ADHD that would make it difficult for him to pay attention in art school. Scott’s friend-with-benefits Kelsey (Bel Powley, a British actress who nails the Staten Island accent and attitude perfectly) at one point yells the thesis of the movie: “You’re so crazy that you make everyone around you feel crazy.” But there’s just enough crass humor that the viewer doesn’t feel like they’re watching a Davidson therapy session. The movie falters narratively at some points, but those are forgivable because it seems like Davidson and Apatow are more interested in “slice of life” realism rather than perfect film three-act structures. The film also shines in its supporting cast, from Marisa Tomei as Margie to Bill Burr’s Ray and Steve Buscemi, who plays firefighter Papa in a role that is not so much a reprisal of an acting part as it is a reprisal of one of his real-life roles: an NYC firefighter.
In the hands of more cruel filmmakers, Staten Island is depicted as New York City’s worst borough, full of criminals and losers. The whole plot of “The First Purge” hinges on this. But, though characters lob some self-deprecating jokes at Staten Island, “The King of Staten Island” depicts it as full of people who believe in its potential, who are trying their best with what they’re given. Pete Davidson is the king of Staten Island in that way: despite his fame and public struggles, people believe in his potential as well, and he’s trying his best. He is not so much the King of Staten Island as he is the Heart of Staten Island.