The greatest movies often come from a real place. Someone had to wrestle a demon or a painful memory out of their head and heart in order to come to terms with it. The land of make believe, a place everyone refers to as movies, can be a playground for cathartic breakthroughs.
For Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow, it was taking a true story, adding some special spices and seasonings to it, and crafting something that felt honest and heartfelt-while making you laugh out loud.
That’s how I would describe “The King of Staten Island,” Apatow’s sixth theatrical feature and one of his best. It’s about Davidson’s real life struggles, told with a small layering of cinematic features. By now, just about everyone knows Davidson as the Saturday Night Live talent whose dad also happened to be a firefighter who perished in 9/11. He takes both of those facts and, along with Apatow and co-writer Dave Sirius, weaves them into what we have here.
Scott (Davidson taking his real life father’s name here) is one of those self-proclaimed losers waiting for a big break. He’s living in his mom’s basement with dreams of being a tattoo artist, all the while memories of his late father ring around his head. His caring yet blunt-speaking mother Carol (the golden Marisa Tomei) is patient but wants him to find his way. Scott’s best friends (including real life Davidson besties like Ricky Valez and Bel Powley) are supporting and root for him, but also want him to pick a spot and shine.
You’ll no doubt find a whole lot of Pete in Scott, a slacker who has a heart and talent yet can’t get the two to meet in the right place. From the self-admitted daddy issues to the general kinetic comedy spirit he imbues upon people in his presence, Davidson is a firecracker here who never really burns out. His best attribute is his energy, something that appears to be infectious in this film.
Soon enough, Margie meets a firefighter in Ray Bishop (Bill Burr, so good), which prompts change in her life and her house. When this pushes Scott into newfound responsibility and a whole new arena of growth that is both scary and potentially uplifting, the movie turns into a crowd-pleaser.
And it’s fine. Wanna know why? Apatow and Davidson built a convincing world around Scott with a stellar supporting cast and a “Good Will Hunting” vibe that feels both punk rock-enthused and organically funny. You believe in him so you believe in the film, which triggers the emotion from both his real life and the fictional one on the screen.
It helps to have a true authenticator of comedy working behind the camera in Apatow. He finds the quirky mess between comedy and drama, and blows it up instead of trying to hide it for something more commercially fitting. He wants to find that gray area in between the laughs that tell you why comedy is there in the first place. This is more assured than “This is 40” and “Funny People” while being nearly as funny as “Knocked Up” and “40-Year-Old Virgin.” The truth in Davidson’s tale makes it feel unique to Apatow’s directing history while fitting in easily with the auteur’s collection of stories.
“The King of Staten Island” has a deep bench. Tomei can turn words on paper into sophisticated dialogue that has worn pants for decades. She immediately carves out a spot on the screen for herself, creating an iron-clad need for Margie to live her own life and simultaneously throw Scott to the wolves. She’s terrific, but then she’s not alone.
Burr has never been this good on any sized screen. Ray could have been another stiff old fireman who put his foot down in Scott’s life, but Burr gives him layers of vulnerability and creates a true arc for this guy inside the two and a half hour running time. Sporting a mustache that would make Rollie Fingers jealous and speaking with the rapid fire trajectory known for his stand-up specials, Burr gives Ray some heart and that shows up big time late in the film.
Steve Buscemi, usually known for playing wacky characters with eccentricities growing out of the script, plays it straight here as the chief at a local firehouse that Bishop works at and Scott starts to hang around. Domenick Lombardozzi, so good in multiple HBO shows as well as “Ray Donovan,” plays a fellow firefighter. The realness comes into play with Buscemi’s real life 9/11 ties, which gives the veteran actor another speed to play.
Powley literally had me convinced she was from Staten Island, because the English actress gives an impressive performance as the woman in Scott’s life who wants to push him off neutral and pass GO before he nears 30 years of age. She is the friend in the group who wants big things for him, so she tries to employ tough love tactics like Scott’s mom to get the job done.
Does the movie run long? Sure it does, but every Apatow film stays for a while. He’s only made a little more than a handful of feature-length films, so why not lean into when the time is right? I think he found an apt co-pilot in Davidson, who really finds his speed here as a mirror image of himself in Scott.
He gives credence to the idea that life is a series of moments and a long, extended process of getting to know yourself. Something tragic happened to Pete/Scott, knocking him off his initial mark in life, forcing him to reconcile what happened and what could happen as a result. Under the guise of a film, we get to know Davidson through “The King of Staten Island.” If you ever wanted to know why Pete is like Pete, here’s your answer.
It’s a genuine heartfelt, hilarious, and honest film that ranks among the best Apatow films and drama-comedies in the past few years. All I had to do was go to Staten Island for a couple hours to understand Pete Davidson.
You should too this weekend.