Review: ‘The King of Staten Island,’ starring Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow and Steve Buscemi

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures)

“The King of Staten Island”

Directed by Judd Apatow

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly on New York City’s Staten Island, the comedy/drama “The King of Staten Island” has a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Latinos and one Native American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 24-year-old ambitionless stoner has conflicts with family members and his widowed mother’s new boyfriend about where his life is headed.

Culture Audience: “The King of Staten Island” will appeal primarily to fans of star Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow, but the movie follows a lot of predictable tropes that they’ve done before in other films.

Bill Burr and Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures)

Here we go again. Pete Davidson is portraying another irresponsible stoner who doesn’t want to grow up but has to face the reality that eventually he has to figure out what he wants to do with his life. If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because Davidson played the exact same type of character in his starring role in the comedy/drama “Big Time Adolescence,” released in March 2020, just three months before comedy/drama “The King of Staten Island” was released.

Judd Apatow directed and co-wrote “The King of Staten Island,” which in some ways is a better movie than “Big Time Adolescence” and in some ways is not. First, what doesn’t work about “The King of Staten Island”: The total running time for “The King of Staten Island” (two hours and 17 minutes) is too long for this type of movie. Because of this long running time, parts of the movie tend to lose focus and have the rambling quality of some cobbled-together improv sketches. And although Davidson has a few moments where his Scott Carlin character shows some emotional depth (especially toward the end of the film), it’s too little, too late, since Davidson is recycling the same dimwit act that he keeps doing in his movies, whether it’s a leading or supporting role.

What does work well about “The King of Staten Island” is that the movie is elevated by the terrific supporting performances of Marisa Tomei (who plays Scott’s widowed mother Margie, who’s a nurse); Bill Burr (who plays Ray Bishop, Margie’s firefighter boyfriend); Bel Powley (who plays Kelsey, Scott’s “friend with benefits”); and Steve Buscemi (who plays Papa, Ray’s father who works as a firefighter at the same station). Their authentic portrayals make “The King of Staten Island” look like it has real people in it, instead of caricatures.

The movie is called “The King of Staten Island,” but Scott really isn’t the king of anything. He’s a frequently unemployed, 24-year-old high-school dropout who still lives with his mother in the New York City borough of Staten Island, a community that’s more politically conservative and less racially diverse than New York City’s other boroughs. Scott spends his days and nights getting drunk or stoned (mostly on marijuana, sometimes on stronger drugs) with his other unemployed friends Oscar (played by Ricky Velez), Igor (played by Moises Arias) and Richie (played by Lou Wilson).

Also in this group of partiers are Kelsey (who’s known Scott since they were kids) and Kelsey’s friend Tara (played by Carly Aquilino). Scott and his friends are in various ways active participants or complicit in the small-time drug dealing they’re involved with to make extra money. Kelsey is proud to be from Staten Island (unlike the rest of the people in the group), and she’s at least trying to do something with her life by applying for a New York City government job. Oscar is the most reckless out of all of them, since it’s his idea later in the story for the guys to rob a pharmacy.

Scott and Kelsey are secretly having sex with each other. He wants to keep their sexual relationship casual, and he doesn’t want anyone else to know about it because Scott tells Kelsey that if they go public about it, it will ruin their friendship. But Kelsey wants more validation for this relationship, and the secrecy is starting to bother her. She tells Scott that she wants more of a respectful commitment from him and wants him to include her in more of his family activities, but he keeps brushing off her concerns.

Scott’s firefighter father (who’s never seen in the movie) died in a hotel fire when Scott was 7 years old. Viewers are supposed to feel sympathetic for Scott because he uses his father’s death as a trauma that keeps holding him back in life. Why do we know this? Because Scott keeps bringing up his father’s death as an excuse for his emotional arrested development.

Scott also has some health issues that affect his outlook on life, such as Crohn’s disease, depression and attention deficit disorder. Davidson is a Staten Island native whose firefighter father also died in real life when Davidson was a child. Davidson has been open about his struggles with substance abuse and mental illness. The problem is that even with these real-life parallels, Davidson’s performance in “The King of Staten Island” is still fairly shallow and repetitive until near the end of the film.

Meanwhile, Scott’s mother Margie has tolerated Scott’s laziness and his refusal to get his own place, perhaps because she’s lonely and hasn’t had a serious romantic relationship since her husband died. Scott’s younger sister Claire (played by Maude Apatow, Judd Apatow’s real-life elder daughter), who has graduated from high school and is headed to college, has a combination of a loving and resentful attitude toward Scott.

Because Scott is the irresponsible sibling, Claire feels like she always has to worry about him. She tells Scott that it’s unfair that she bear this emotional burden, because Scott as the older sibling should be looking out for her. Claire also tells Scott that she resents that Scott’s tendency to get into trouble causes their mother to focus a lot of energy on Scott, while Claire often feels ignored.

The beginning of the movie shows how Claire doesn’t really want Scott to come to the joint graduation party that she’s having with her best friend Joanne (played Pauline Chalamet), because Claire is afraid that Scott might embarrass her. Scott doesn’t really feel like going to the party because he doesn’t want to wear a suit. There’s some back-and-forth arguing, until their mother Margie forces Scott to go to the party and tells him to behave himself while he’s there. This family drama over the party takes up a little too much time in the movie and could have benefited from some tighter editing.

Does Scott have any dreams he wants to fulfill? Yes. He wants to be a tattoo artist. And he has an idea to eventually start his own tattoo parlor restaurant, which he’d like to call Ruby Tattuesdays. Scott thinks it’s a brilliant idea, but the idea is ridiculed by his friends. Colson Baker (also known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly) has a cameo in “The King of Staten Island” as a tattoo artist who basically laughs Scott out of his shop when Scott tries to get an apprenticeship at the shop. (Baker, who’s a close friend of Davidson’s in real life, played one of the stoner buddies in “Big Time Adolescence.”)

To hone his tattooing skills, Scott gives his friends free tattoos. The results are … Well, let’s just say that Scott isn’t ready for the big leagues in the tattoo world. One day, Scott and his male friends are hanging around outside when a 9-year-old boy named Harold (played by Luke David Blumm) randomly comes over and starts talking to them. The guys are amused by this kid, and when Scott asks Harold if he wants Scott to give him a tattoo, Harold eagerly says yes and tells Scott that he wants a tattoo of The Punisher on his arm.

Scott ignores concerns from his friends that it would be illegal to tattoo Harold because Harold is under the age of 18. Within less than a minute of Scott tattooing Harold, the boy reels away in pain and tells Scott to stop, before running away. It isn’t long before Harold’s divorced father Ray angrily shows up with Harold at Margie’s door to demand why Scott was trying to tattoo a 9-year-old boy.

Margie smooths things over by offering to pay for the laser treatment to correct the tattoo scar, and she becomes furious with Scott, who gives some very dumb excuses for why he did this illegal tattooing of a child. Later, Ray comes back to visit Margie to apologize for yelling at her so harshly, and he ends up asking her out on a date. Their romance becomes serious (they end up living together), which doesn’t sit too well with Scott, since Ray and Scott don’t really like each other.

Besides the fact that Ray doesn’t respect Scott and thinks he’s a lazy bum, their relationship is also tense because Scott hates that his mother is dating a firefighter. Scott thinks it’s somewhat disrespectful to the memory of Scott’s father, whom Scott has put on a pedestal in his childhood memories of his dad. Ray knew Scott’s father, but only as a passing acquaintance. In a pivotal scene in the movie, Ray’s father Papa gives Scott some background information on Scott’s father that helps Scott view his dad as more like a human instead of a god.

Even though Scott and Ray don’t really like each other, Ray trusts Scott enough to let Scott sometimes take care of Ray’s children—Harold and 7-year-old daughter Kelly (played by Alexis Rae Forlenza)—who like being around Scott. It’s while babysitting the kids that Scott starts to show some signs that he’s capable of being a responsible adult. Scott also finds an ally with Ray’s ex-wife Gina (played by Pamela Adlon), who also despises Ray.

Judd Apatow and Davidson co-wrote “The King of Staten Island” screenplay with Dave Sirus, who has a background in stand-up comedy. The movie’s dialogue is hit or miss, as some scenes play like a comedy sketch, while other scenes play as if the film is based more in realism. One of the “comedy sketch” scenes that falls flat is when Scott, who’s gotten a waiter job at his cousin’s restaurant, finds out that the restaurant’s waiters have a strange tradition of boxing each other at the end of a shift, and the winner gets everyone else’ waiter tips. Needless to say, Scott doesn’t last long at that job.

An example of the type of “humorous” lines from Scott is a scene when he and his friends talk about how Staten Island compares to other parts of the Tri-State area. Scott says about Staten Island: “We’re the only place New Jersey looks down on. You can see the garbage dump from space. This place is never going to change.”

The funniest scene in the movie doesn’t come from any of the main characters, but from a cameo by Action Bronson, who plays a very stoned man who walks up to a very stoned Scott while Scott is sitting outside. The man, who’s nameless in the film, has a bleeding wound in his abdomen. And what happens next in that scene includes some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.

Judd Apatow’s best-known movies (such as “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” or “Trainwreck”) tend to be about immature adults who eventually have some kind of emotional metamorphosis. Therefore, “The King of Staten Island” is really not doing anything groundbreaking or particularly innovative for Apatow. As for Davidson, if he wants to be considered one of his generation’s greatest comedians who can act, he needs to show audiences that he can do more than the same type of empty-headed “loser” persona that can put him in typecast hell.

Universal Pictures released “The King of Staten Island” on digital and VOD on June 12, 2020.