THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND— 2 STARS
The “semi” in front of the “semi-autobiographical” label for Pete Davidson’s quarter-life crisis movie memoir The King of Staten Island is both ambiguous and chancy. Formally, the prefix is meant to signify “half” while it often means “partially,” “incompletely,” and “somewhat.” The adjunct is fitting. At its fullest and best, Judd Apatow’s newest dramedy coming to VOD on June 12th is a collection of half-hearted beats and half-witted mischief. That’s it. Just half.
Pete Davidson’s proxy character is Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old slacker resident of the Shaolin borough of New York City. His firefighter father died on the job when he was seven, leaving behind him, his college-bound younger sister Claire (Maud Apatow), and their tough cookie single mother Margie (Oscar winner Marisa Tomei). Described at one point as looking like an “anorexic panda” with his paleness and swollen eyes, the young man-child still squatting with his mother has a list of issues longer than the grocery list of a glutton.
The wavering medications treating his ADD and depression combine with the calamitous coping chemistry of weed, risks, and impulsive decisions to keep Scott crawling through disappointing existence. He has a trio of stoned buddies (Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, and Moises Arias), a steady lay (The Diary of a Teenage Girl’s Bel Powley, in a bit of thankless girlfriend role) who wants a real relationship, and a festering aspiration to be a tattoo artist. Add in a glass jaw, low alcoholic constitution, flare-ups of Crohn’s disease, a smart mouth, and a flippant lack of care or awareness and you have Scott Carlin. When his mother begins dating another firefighter (comedian Bill Burr), Scott’s blurry selfish foresight sets off a new downward spiral.
LESSON #1: DON’T EVER ASK “WHAT DID I DO?”— Time and again, Scott is either high, clueless, irresponsible, or all three for his words and action. His favorite cop-out is the pleading of “I’m still figuring shit out.” However, if you have to ask what you did when both the initial choice and the predictably bad aftermath are so painfully obvious for their wrongness then the problem is most certainly you.
LESSON #2: YOUR FAMILY IS BOUND TO ITS WORST MEMBER— Folks often talk about someone being the “glue” within the family, the person that holds everyone together. Scott’s stickiness is more like the unpleasant kind you don’t want and cannot wash off. He and his issues are immovable and hold others back. His family members can’t change unless he does too. That’s a bit of the wrong and unstable kind of adhesive unity.
LESSON #3: “THE PAIN IS THE POINT”— The repetitive sting of a tattoo artist’s needle is the cost to be paid for the (hopefully) beautiful and meaningful piece of body art that will remain for the rest of one’s life. Other pains in life have a purpose and prices as well. The point of living through, with, and beyond those pains is the resilience to become better. Some people make it to that point and others don’t. Pete Davidson and his surrogate self Scott Carlin are in that arduous cycle.
Auto-biopics, as one could call them, are challenging undertakings. Their persuasion levels are all over the place. On one end, you have attention-craving glamour projects for the vain. On the other, there can be a respectable level of grounded legitimacy and courage to see the subject put themselves in front of a camera or audience to tell their story. The good or bad result, depending on the power of the story being shared, is either a bared soul or a cry for help.
The King of Staten Island feels quite loudly like both of those and that’s problematic. It is a 137-minute tribute to family, fathers, and firefighters with all of their heroics and dysfunction. It is a 137-minute chronicle of a shitty person being repetitively irresponsible until outside wisdom arrives with tidy and convenient character correction. It is also a 137-minute apology from a headcase sort of admitting his faults while still selfishly granting a sunny storybook ending. This film wants all three, tries all three, and that excessive storytelling is more a burden than a bounty.
Either way this whatever-you-now-want-to-call-it biopic is entirely too long from a large team of extremely talented people who are too good for this material written by the director, the star, and a polish from Saturday Night Live vet Dave Sirus. Somehow, three editors for The King of Staten Island, three-time Oscar nominee Jay Cassidy (twice for David O. Russell works), William Kerr (Bridesmaids), and Brian Scott Olds (Central Intelligence) couldn’t trim paper with a welding torch. Honing is missing in both storytelling, comedy, and pacing.
In a lightly commendable fashion, director Judd Apatow downshifts from the massive A-list ensembles he has been making for quite some time into this smaller single-subject project with lesser stars. He brought pedigree with him. Prolific Academy Award-winning Robert Elswit helps make the hazy basements and middle-class muck of Staten Island look like paradise. Elswit is overqualified but appreciated in doing wonders to make the star look like the star even when he’s not one.
This is the unfiltered and unbridled Pete Davidson you don’t see falling into the background of skits and bits on Saturday Night Live. If you have seen his recent Netflix stand-up special Pete Davidson: Alive in New York, that was just a taste of the forthright melancholy and madness capable of coming out of his mind and mouth. No one is going to call this range, but, as Scott, Davidson has comebacks, smiles, and, more notably, anxieties for anything and everything fed to him from his co-stars and screen partners. You either shake your head as his buffoonery or you pause in mild reflection. It’s rarely both and, again, just half.