Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson can be a divisive figure. His comedy on that series and across his career doesn't land for some audiences, but to some, his sense of humor has the right mixture of self-deprecation, absurdity, irony, and randomness that appeals directly to many his age range (myself included). This Adult Swim style of shocks and giggles has hit the big time with The King of Staten Island and it's the most compelling thing Davidson has been involved with so far in his career. Frankly, the film is one of the most honest and empathetic portrayals of millennial life to hit the screen, and some of us needed it desperately.
In the film, Davidson plays a fictional version of himself named Scott Carlin, albeit without a career trajectory into comedy and instead a desire to be a tattoo artist. Like so many, his mid-20s have become a wasteland of missed opportunities, but like the Davidson of reality, the death of his firefighter father had a major effect on him and continues to. As a result, he’s in a state of arrested development, hanging out with friends on the beach or in the basement, navigating romance without labels, depending on his mom for a lot, and being forced to attend fancy parties that he doesn’t want to go to.
By putting everything on the table with regard to the reality of life for modern young people, Davidson has managed to help create a movie that feels like Richard Linklater’s Slacker for a new generation. The comedian co-wrote the script with his real-life friend Dave Sirus and director Judd Apatow, who is no stranger to man-child modernity in his movie career. What they were able to create together is a modern portrait of life for so many as real-life collides with ambition and a disinterest in responsibility.
Starring alongside Davidson in the film is both a who’s who of modern comedy and also a series of fresh faces that add a lot to the film’s authenticity. Marisa Tomei stars as Davidson’s mother and manages to carry the screen every time she’s on it, but the movie really comes alive when comedian Bill Burr first appears, who unsurprisingly has some of the funniest lines in the film. Opposite Davidson is English actress Bel Powley as Kelsey, his lifelong friend turned would-be girlfriend who is the secret weapon of the entire piece. Powley does a spot on Staten Island voice and plays your heart like a fiddle by ironically bringing depth to the hollowness of modern dating. Steve Buscemi and Pamela Adlon also make supporting appearances that add both humor and heart.
On the flip side, there’s a crop of newcomers that do a lot of heavy lifting across The King of Staten Island’s narrative and in one-off scenes. Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, and Moises Arias all appear as Davidson’s trio of best friends, illustrating how poorly things can go for those lost in the haze of young adulthood while also delivering gut-busters from the top rope. Davidson’s actual grandfather Stephen Davidson appears in one scene as well and has one of the best lines in the entire film.
The only thing that really drags The King of Staten Island down is the same motifs that can be found in other Apatow movies. It’s a long film that doesn’t quite feel like it gets going until the 30-minute mark, and some scenes feel like they exist to just spin the comedic wheels without pushing the narrative further. But these scenes are sparse compared to some of his other films, and overall this might be Apatow's best (and ironically most mature).
The King of Staten Island is a movie that confronts the cul de sac of hopelessness that young adults often feel, but offers a roadmap for breaking out of that and moving on. Its message isn’t just for the young adults watching, either. The film makes a point to note that these feelings of anguish and despair are not exclusive to one age demographic and that learning to find a way forward will be helpful in the long run no matter how hard it is. That’s why I love this movie, it has a weird sense of humor that feels prescient but it has an emotive streak that feels both timely and timeless.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The King of Staten Island is available to rent on VOD, Friday, June 12th.