Since joining the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2014, Pete Davidson has tended to make more news with his personal life than his professional one. Whether it was dating high-profile women like Ariana Grande and Kate Beckinsale, or showing erratic behavior that led to worries he was suicidal, Davidson’s real life was always more interesting than his on-screen roles.
The King of Staten Island, which Davidson co-wrote with director Judd Apatow (Dave Sirus is also credited as co-writer), may prove to be the turning point in his career. Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old wannabe tattoo artist who still lives at home with his mom Margie (Marisa Tomei) on Staten Island. His days mostly consist of hanging out with his equally lazy friends, practicing tattoos on any remaining blank spaces on their bodies, and, naturally, smoking pot.
When his sister Claire (Maude Apatow) moves away to college and his mom starts dating again 17 years after the death of his firefighter father, Scott is forced to re-evaluate his own life. It’s clear that his current course is not fulfilling, but a lack of motivation coupled with mental health limitations makes it hard for him to see any way out of his neighborhood.
There’s nothing earth-shattering about the story Davidson is trying to tell, but it’s the specifics that keep it consistently interesting and entertaining. An opening sequence gives immediate insight into Scott’s mental state, something which colors the rest of the film even when it gets more lighthearted.
Though not strictly autobiographical, the film includes enough elements of Davidson’s real life that it would appear he’s trying to work through some personal issues. Scott’s father died in a fire, just as Davidson’s dad (whose name was Scott) died as a first responder on 9/11. Scott’s obsession with tattoos is a natural extension of Davidson's obvious real-life love, given that his upper body is covered with them. And Scott openly talks about his mental health issues, which Davidson has, as well. All are dealt with extensively in the film, to varying degrees of seriousness.
This is Apatow’s first feature directorial effort in five years, and it’s nice to see that he has reined in some of his more outré tendencies. While there is plenty of comedy in the film, none of it is so over-the-top that the story becomes unbelievable. There are a few narrative missteps, with some sections moving too quickly while others go too slowly, but on the whole the film is nicely paced and plotted.
It remains to be seen whether Davidson can parlay this film into future stardom, but he’s confident and charismatic in this particular role. Tomei hasn’t had a mom role very often, but she acquits herself well here. The casting of Maude Apatow as the sister might look like nepotism, but she proves any doubters wrong with a strong and nuanced performance. And Bill Burr, Steve Buscemi, and Pamela Adlon all bring great energy to their supporting roles.
The King of Staten Island may or may not turn out to be Davidson’s Trainwreck, the 2015 Apatow film that brought Amy Schumer into the mainstream. But it shows that he has much more to offer than he has shown on SNL, a welcome development for any comedy lover.