The King of Staten Island (2020)
When you use that title structure, you’re kind of making a promise to your audience, whether they’re conscious of it or not.
The obvious allusion is to 1972’s The King of Marvin Gardens, Bob Rafelson’s downbeat but mordantly funny Atlantic City drama which saw Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern star as two chalk and cheese brothers trying to make their fortune in the gambling mecca.
Then there’s 1984’s The Pope of Greenwich Village, where cousins Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts try and carve out their own piece of the titular New York City neighborhood.
Both films are character studies with perfunctory plots but an astute eye for telling detail, local color, and emotional truth, which can be in short supply in mainstream modern cinema. Still, there’s that title structure, the [noun] of [place], which speaks to something, makes that promise: we’re going to hang out with people who, even if we don’t recognize them specifically, are recognizable. We’ll come to understand their foibles, their failings, their hopes and dreams, and struggles. Does The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96) keep that promise, I wonder? That might be beyond the scope of this bit of business, but The King of Staten Island does.
Like The King of Marvin Gardens and The Pope of Greenwich Village, Judd Apatow’s latest gives us a mismatched duo to watch bump up against each other: 24-year-old man child Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), a feckless fuckboi stoner still living with his single mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and divorced fireman Ray (Bill Burr and his mustache), who begins to court her. This throws Scott’s aimless, self-absorbed life into disarray: his mother dating again is change, and change is one thing he can’t stand. His world is one of endless bong hits, petty crime, and sniping at the stage from the wings. If his mom and Ray hit it off, he’ll have to move out, get a job, and actually start living a life of his own — unthinkable. And we proceed, in a meandering, foot-dragging way, from there.
Full disclosure: historically, not a Pete Davidson fan. He looks like some kind of amphibious hybrid that I instinctively recoil from on a basic mammal level, and the snatches of his comedy I’ve caught have bounced off my sense of humor without leaving a mark, which is fine: not every joke is for every person, comedy is subjective, and yadda yadda yadda. But it does mean I went into this one balancing initial instinctive distaste against my determination to give The King of Staten Island a fair shake because hell, if you can’t do that, you don’t belong in this game.
And as it turned out, that was the right call because this is a genuinely great film. It delivers on its promise: character, pathos, humor, drama, catharsis.
Key to this is the way it portrays Davidson’s Scott, who is initially frankly unlikable. The old adage that audiences need likable protagonists is garbage, but they do generally need understandable ones, and what makes Scott work in this regard is his palpable wounded quality. He’s an asshole and a bum and a moocher, skating by on his often questionable charm and the good graces of his too-indulgent family, but he’s clearly shouldering a raft of problems and trauma, and if he’s not coping as well as he could, he’s coping as well as he thinks he can. His primal wound is the death of his fireman father when Scott was young, and with Ray also being a fireman, you don’t need to be Freud to see how mom’s new BF is particularly distressing for him.
I’ve known plenty of guys like Scott in my time: talented, charming, directionless dead ends whose universe largely comprises a couch, a TV, a bucket bong, and an X-Box. In all honesty, for a good swathe of my 20s, I was one of them. A lot of those guys I knew are still on the couch, and some of them are dead, and some of them I have completely lost track of, but as portrayed by Davidson and framed by Apatow (comedian Dave Sirus co-wrote the script with the pair, too), Scott rings true. The drifting, the charisma, the selfishness, the pie-in-the-sky dreams (possessed of a torso slathered in ugly tattoos, Scott wants to open a restaurant where diners watch people get inked) — all on point.
That specificity extends to how the film handles its setting. Location-as-character is a cliché by this stage of the game, but sometimes clichés are true, and Davidson and Apatow’s film has such a tight lock on the NYC borough of the title that you never for a second doubt its authenticity. The same goes for the supporting characters: Bel Powley’s long-suffering girlfriend; Kevin Corrigan in a brief turn as a restauranteur uncle; Moisés Arias as Igor, one of Scott’s stoner buddies; Steve Buscemi and Domenick Lombardozzi as Ray’s fellow firies; and Pamela Adlon as his ex-wife.
For all that The King of Staten Island veers towards portraiture at times, the heart of the film is the relationship between Scott and Ray. At first, it seems pretty off-the-rack: young rebel butts heads with older, masculine authoritarian, and comedic and dramatic sparks fly. The film is more nuanced than that, though, with both men gradually revealing more complexities, vulnerabilities, and intimacies as the story progresses.
This is couched in what is effectively an extended salute to the FDNY in the film’s final act which seems a little on the nose to my Australian sensibilities, but then again, as the recent meme goes, nobody ever wrote a song called Fuck the Fire Department, so perhaps a little praise showered on the first responders is okay. To its credit, the film never descends into slavish worship, instead giving us a look at the kind of ordinary heroism such a job demands, and balancing it with some genuinely loose, roughhouse humor.
Yes, Scott’s arc is one of redemption, with him learning the value of service and reconciling his idea of his dead father with the reality of the actual male role models life presents to him, but Apatow and co. handle this deftly. We never get a mawkish ‘It’s not your fault’ Good Will Hunting crying jag or a big moment of emotional breakthrough. Change and growth happen slowly but markedly, and while the film doesn’t shy away from the odd bit of narrative symbolism, it never feels forced; rather, it emerges out of the reality of the characters and their situation.
The same can be said of the comedy, which is all character-based and contextual. The King of Staten Island is a deeply funny flick, but there are no jokes to repeat afterward. The laughs are all emergent, in the moment, naturalistic, and earned.
Speaking of naturalistic, Davidson’s performance here is absolutely sublime, in a way that’s easy to dismiss if you’re not paying attention. Scott, as a person, is a collection of affectations and learned behaviors that’ll let him walk between the raindrops avoiding as much responsibility as humanly possible. He’s a triple-walled city, barrier after barrier, and the genius of Davidson’s performance here is that he both shows us how good Scott is at performing the role he’s carved out for himself and the damaged actual person hiding behind that façade. It’s a really stunning performance, and the point on which the whole thing balances — if Davidson rang false for even a second, the whole film would come crashing down. That he doesn’t is remarkable.
So, I wasn’t a Davidson fan going in, but maybe I am now. The King of Staten Island is a beautiful, ribald, emotionally resonant film, and it’s got me keen to see what its star can do next. I don’t think this exact trick could be pulled off twice, but I’m certainly glad we got this one.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson