Scott Carlin is cruising down on a crowded highway when suddenly he decides to close his eyes and accelerate. He keeps them closed for a uncomfortably long time before finally opening them and narrowly avoiding a terrible accident. He recovers but is visibly shaken by the choice he's just made. That near-suicide attempt is the opening scene of The King of Staten Island and it perfectly sets up the journey the viewer will take into the protagonist's mind.
The film explores Scott's life on Staten Island as a directionless 24-year-old stoner who can't seem to get over a massive childhood trauma. He lives with his mother and his seemingly-perfect, college-bound sister. He spends his days hanging out with his buddies and getting stoned, while looking for any excuse to avoid maturing. But Scott has big dreams. He wants to be a tattoo artist and open a tattoo restaurant, but his work is so bad even his friends won't let him practice on them anymore.
Scott is played by Pete Davidson, who also wrote the semi-autobiographical script and it's quickly apparently he isn't just playing a character. You see, Scott's father was a firefighter who died in a hotel fire he was young, and Davidson's father was a firefighter who died in the Marriott World Trade Center on 9/11 when Pete was just seven years old. The rest of their profiles line up, as Scott has Crohn's disease and ADHD, plus any number of depressive tendencies. Davidson is essentially playing a version of himself, locked in a Staten Island-sized prison.
Director Judd Apatow leaned into the similarities and clearly challenged the actor to explore his own personal trauma. Some might find the end result surprising, as Davidson finds something deeper when exploring the character. Those who know the 26-year-old from his comedy or his work on Saturday Night Live may be surprised to discover the guy can actually act. He showed range in this movie, turning in funny moments, while also developing a sweet relationship with two young kids. But Davidson also went into uncomfortable territory while exploring Scott's depression in a meaningful way. He knocked the role out of the park.
This could have been a straight comedy, but Davidson and Apatow went a different direction and shifted towards a dramedy. There's some serious stuff here, and while there are real comedic hits along the way, the undertone is heavy. It's not funny that Scott can't get his life on track, the viewer actually feels sad for him and wants him to find a win so badly. It also becomes obvious that the trauma of his father's death isn't something he occasionally deals with, instead it's always there, just below the surface.
While Scott's time goofing off with his friends provide the movies principal laughs, the main plot follows his reaction to the news that his mother is dating again. Marisa Tomei plays Scott's mother, Margie. Her new firefighter boyfriend, Ray, is adeptly played by Bill Burr. Davidson wrote the role with Burr in mind and the veteran comic also surprised with the depth of his performance. Fans of Burr will recognize some of his classic over-the-top rants and insults he's known for, but in general he gives a measured performance with some heart. The fact that Ray is a firefighter sets Scott immediately against him and brings memories of his father flooding back.
Scott develops a relationship with Ray's kids while simultaneously trying to get their father out of his mother's life. I won't spoil the end, but Scott does wind up connecting with his father's firefighter roots, which creates some really great scenes.
Steve Buscemi and Maude Apatow (the director's daughter) both turn in memorable -- albeit brief -- performances, but of the supporting characters Bel Powley's work stood out. She plays Scott's best friend Kelsey, who he has begun sleeping with. The rising British actress nailed the Staten Island accent and could have passed for a cast member from Jersey Shore.
The movie is perhaps a little long at 136 minutes and did have some slow stretches. But it never felt boring. Scott's journey is interesting because the character has layers and is in obvious pain. The audience so desperately wants him to find a way out of his rut.
Kudos to Davidson for his work in the film. He wrote a good script and his work playing a version of himself made it worth the price of admission. It reminded me of Howard Stern's work in Private Parts. The depth and nuance of both performances while playing versions of themselves was surprising and, for Davidson, promising.
The King of Staten Island is streaming now and comes recommended by this writer.