Judd Apatow expands his stoner comedy kingdom by joining forces with SNL alum and prodigal comedian, Pete Davidson. Alongside Dave Sirus, the writing trio concocts “The King of Staten Island,” a semi-autobiographical tale that deconstructs the “what if” concept by framing it as “what if not.” What would Davidson’s life be had he refrained from pursuing stand-up comedy? Apatow’s “alternate universe” biopic posits that people don’t really change all that much — they either succeed or loaf around hoping to.
Davidson plays Scott, a 24-year-old Staten Island homebody version of himself who — against the encouraging wishes of his mom and sister (Marisa Tomei and Maude Apatow) — refuses to move ahead in life unless his tunnel-visioned business idea comes to fruition. The young ne’er-do-well wants to be the first entrepreneur to open a restaurant within a tattoo parlor. Despite this venture being both unrealistic and unappealing, Scott remains undeterred. His tattoo artistry itself is raw, lacks cohesion, and irresponsibly (if not hilariously) uses friends, lovers (Bel Powley) and family for sketching practice.
Scott is named after Davidson’s late father, a firefighter who died heroically on 9/11. The tragic passing is incorporated into the story, though the script infers rather than argues this is the root cause behind the title star’s stagnancy and manic state of mind. In reality, the comedian channeled his grief through stand-up, grounding his hyperactive persona with sobering authenticity.
Here, Pete as Scott can’t seem to anchor his mania unless marijuana is involved. Some of the funniest moments derive from extended dialogue sequences with no other purpose than to watch Scott and pals Oscar (Ricky Velez), Richie (Lou Wilson), and Igor (Moises Arias) schmooze over bongs and blunts. The coterie gives the impression that Staten Island is an isolated bubble of lethargy, where no one from the other New York City boroughs ever comes to shake up the area’s inertness. Thus, the local youth either need to make a great escape or risk a vagrant future.
As magnetic as Davidson is, the heart of his journey to nowhere is buoyed by his immediate cast. Marisa Tomei offers motherhood in spades of acceptance and self-improvement. Margie isn’t there to solely nurture or coddle; she’s got her own arc that frees her from the past while promising growth. Then there is Maude Apatow as Scott’s sister, Kelsey. An actress who consistently challenges nepotism bias, Apatow gives a career-best turn revealing the unfair burden families place on aspiring young women, who are often forced to be the mature voice of reason. Rather than relax into her new college routine, Kelsey has to remotely deal with the emotional fallout caused by her older brother’s self-destruction.
However, the first major “Best Supporting Actor” contender of 2020 springs up unexpectedly with an outstanding and complicated “father figure” turn from Bill Burr. Able to distract from his bushy handlebar mustache with hardy spirit, Burr’s Ray comes into Scott and Margie’s life after an initial bad run-in. Ray’s son, Harold (Luke David Blumm), ends up being another of Scott’s tattoo test subjects after he stumbles onto the beach where Scott and his boisterous crew hang around. Though livid, Ray is charmed by Margie’s sincere apology and braves asking her out for coffee. The two become a quick romance item, angering Scott since this is the first guy after his father’s death that Margie’s dated.
The two stubborn men can’t find common ground except for the fact that Ray is also a firefighter, ushering in a part of the past Scott had shielded for seventeen years. What emerges from their hostile interactions is poignant admiration for this fearless profession and the camaraderie it fosters. Steve Buscemi plays one of Ray’s colleagues in the unit, who offers anecdotal pearls of heyday times involving Scott’s dad. This helps humanize the idealistic version Scott had been clinging onto for so long. “The King of Staten Island” is ultimately about reckoning with individuals stripped to their core simplicity. They might achieve greatness or nothing at all, but they still matter to someone in their community. Although we’ve been conditioned to ignore those left behind, their uneventful lives hold more relatable value than society is willing to admit.