Film Review: The King of Staten Island Gets a Hit and a Miss

Director Judd Apatow (“The Forty year old Virgin,” “Trainwreck”) has made his fame by directing some very amusing films and has helped launch the careers of several Hollywood actors, such as Steve Carrell, Amy Schumer, and Bill Hader. He is now featuring another newcomer to the big screen whom audiences will recognize from “Saturday Night Live” skits, Pete Davidson, playing Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old high school dropout, who lives in his widowed mother’s basement, smokes too much weed, and hopes for a career as a tattoo artist.

Apatow and Davidson co-wrote the script and drew some of the plot elements from Davidson’s own life story. Both the fictional Scott and the real-life Davidson had fireman fathers who died in line of duty when their sons were seven years old. Davidson’s father died in the Twin Towers on 9/11 while the fictional Scott’s father died heroically under less dramatic circumstances. Both Davidson and his character have suffered emotional trauma growing up without a father and both are troubled with Crohn’s disease.

The emotional scars that Scott carries through adolescence and into adulthood affect his life, often overwhelming him and leading to unwise life decisions, but Davidson is such a skilled comedic actor that the obviously ironic label, “King of Staten Island,” plays as a comedy even with the tragic elements that haunt his character. To contrast Scott’s lack of focus in making life decisions, he has a younger sister (Maude Apatow) who is graduating from high school and is soon off to the college of her choice. He frequently reminds her that she was too young to remember their father before his fateful accident and was therefore not as affected by the wrenching loss.

Scott spends most of his time hanging out with his friends and getting them to agree to let him practice his tattoo skills on them. One afternoon he is approached by a nine-year-old boy who, intrigued by all of the tattoos, agrees to let Scott practice on his shoulder. His friends discourage Scott from doing this without getting permission from the youngster’s parents, but Scott ignores their advice and proceeds until the child screams and runs away. The plot then takes an unexpected turn when the child’s father shows up that night at Scott’s home and begins excoriating him for harming his son and demands damages for the medical cost of removing the partial tattoo. Scott’s mother Margie (Marisa Tomei), who is an ER nurse, tells the irate father that she will get it taken care of and pay the cost. Somewhat mollified, the father Ray (Bill Burr), leaves saying that he will take care of the expense.

A few days later, Ray returns to speak again with Margie. Also a fireman, Ray and Margie find they have much in common and he asks her out on a date. A romance blooms much to the chagrin of Scott, who has just missed a close call with the police.  His friends have broken into a pharmacy to steal drugs and he is to be their get-away driver, but the store’s alarm goes off and the police immediately respond. So, Scott drives away.

Margie makes Scott move out and the challenges he meets finding another place to live land him in a local firehouse, where some of the firemen remember his father, both his faults and his heroism. Almost stealing the movie from the other outstanding performers is an older fireman played by Steve Buscemi, who has the wisdom and compassion to handle a difficult young man.

“The King of Staten Island” is not a perfect movie. It lasts an overly long two-and-one-half hours and it has a misleading opening scene that seems to prepare us for a tragedy. But the tone of the film is much more comic than we are led to expect. The plot with its developments does hold together and there is a definite arc to the story. The acting in “The King” is spot-on and the plot elements, never banal, are always believable, especially in the scenes with the wonderful Marisa Tomei, whom we haven’t seen in enough movies lately.

Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island”

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