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.

 

Review: ‘Big Time Adolescence,’ starring Pete Davidson

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Griffin Gluck and Pete Davidson in “Big Time Adolescence” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

“Big Time Adolescence”

Directed by Jason Orley

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. suburban city, the comedy/drama “Big Time Adolescence” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high-school student’s close friendship with an older guy who’s a stoner ends up being problematic for the student.

Culture Audience: “Big Time Adolescence” will appeal primarily to people who like male-centric coming-of-age stories or stories about young people partying.

Pete Davidson and Griffin Gluck in “Big Time Adolescence” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

“Big Time Adolescence” is just another way of saying “Overgrown Man-Boy,” which is the typecast persona that “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson has cultivated for himself so far in his entertainment career. It’s exactly this type of person that Davidson plays in this comedy/drama, where his Zeke character is an irresponsible stoner in his early 20s who’s a bad influence on high-school student Monroe “Mo” Harris (played by Griffin Gluck), who is Zeke’s best friend.

Viewers know this from the beginning of the story, which shows in the opening scene that Mo is getting taken out of his classroom by a police officer. And Mo says in a voiceover that it’s Zeke’s fault that Mo got into this mess. What exactly is the mess that has gotten Mo in trouble with the law?

Most of the rest of the movie shows what happened that led up to this moment. In a flashback to six years earlier, Mo became friends with Zeke when Mo was about 10 years old and Zeke was about 16. At the time, Zeke was dating Mo’s sister Kate (played by Emily Arlook), who eventually broke up with Zeke because she suspected that he was cheating on her. The night that they broke up, Mo asked Zeke if he and Zeke could still be friends. At first, Zeke doesn’t think it’s good idea, but Mo insists and Zeke relents, and off they ride in Zeke’s car.

Over the next six years, Mo and Zeke have become close enough that they consider each other to be “best friends” and have what might be considered something like an older brother/younger brother relationship. Now 16 years old, Mo hasn’t made any real friends in high school. His social life revolves around hanging out with Zeke and Zeke’s fellow dimwitted stoner friends, which include Danny (played by Omar Shariff Brunson Jr.) and Nick (played by Colson Baker, also known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly).

Mo isn’t a complete loner at school. He’s on the baseball team, but he does not excel there. He’s not good enough to be frequently chosen for playing on the field during games, and it adds to his insecurities. Mo wants to quit the team, but his supportive parents Reuben and Sherri (played by Jon Cryer and Julia Murney) urge him to not give up.

Zeke goes to watch Mo at baseball practice, where he sits far away from Reuben and Sherri and is shown to be the loudest and most irritating spectator on the benches. Instead of giving Mo tips to improve his baseball playing, Zeke encourages Mo to not take a swing when he’s at bat and instead take the lazier option of base on balls (also known as a walk) to get to first base.

Zeke has his own house that he inherited from his late grandmother. It’s party central at the home, but somehow, up until a certain point in the story, Mo has managed to never get stoned, although he does partake in underage drinking when he’s with Zeke. Even though it’s entirely believable that Mo declined to smoke marijuana while being Zeke’s friend, what’s harder to believe is that Mo never got a contact high from all the years of partying with Zeke and his friends.

The movie shows Mo’s first “contact high” with Zeke much later in the story, when a stoner friend from Zeke’s murky past just happens to see Zeke and Mo while they’re out driving in Zeke’s car.  Zeke’s long-lost pal wants to catch up and get high for old time’s sake and makes Zeke close all the car windows while they smoke blunts.

Even though Mo spends a lot of time with hard-partying Zeke, Mo is very sheltered when it comes to dating. It’s revealed in the movie that not only is he a virgin, but he’s also never been on a date or kissed or girl. Considering the kind of person Zeke is and how he pushes Mo so hard to be a reckless partier, it’s kind of unrealistic that Mo didn’t get involved in drugs sooner. We’re supposed to believe that during the relatively short period of time that this movie takes place (about a month or two), Mo’s life suddenly took a downward spiral because of Zeke.

What flipped this switch? For starters, Mo got his driver’s license, which allows him to have more freedom. The other thing that happens is that Mo unexpectedly gets a chance to hang out with some of the “cool” older kids in school. But there’s a catch.

He’s invited to his first high-school house party by a fellow nerd named Will, who goes by the nickname Stacy (played by Thomas Barbusca). Stacy says that he was invited to the party because Stacy promised the older kids that he would bring alcohol, but Stacy doesn’t know how to get alcohol and he needs Mo to get the alcohol through Zeke. In return, Mo will get to go to the party as Stacy’s guest.

When Mo tells Zeke about the party, Zeke immediately sees it as an opportunity to sell some of his marijuana and make a profit. He tells Mo that Mo has to be the one to sell the weed at the party because Mo is underage and the legal consequences won’t be as severe if he gets caught. Mo is extremely reluctant, but since he idolizes Zeke, Mo is convinced to do it. As part of the deal, Zeke says that he will split the profits with Mo.

Things go much better at the party than Mo expected. Not only was he instantly accepted because he brought alcohol and marijuana, but he also got to connect at the party with a fellow student named Sophie (played by Oona Laurence), who’s been a secret crush of his from afar. Sophie is smart with a sarcastic sense of humor. She finds Mo’s awkwardness endearing, even though she’s trying to hide some of her awkwardness too.

Mo felt so good about his first party experience with his high-school peers that he jumps at the chance when he’s invited to another house party soon afterward. At the first party, he and Zeke made a tidy profit from the drug sales, so Zeke wants Mo to keep selling marijuana at these parties. Zeke has even quit his job as a sales clerk at an appliance store because he figures that he can make enough money by overcharging high school students for drug sales, so he doesn’t have to work.

Zeke literally tells Mo all of this, but naïve Mo still acts surprised that Zeke doesn’t want a job and would rather sit back and let Mo do all the dirty work in the drug deals while Zeke reaps the monetary benefits. Mo protests and says his drug dealing at the party was just a “one-time thing.” But once again, Mo gives in to whatever Zeke wants because Mo is desperate to look “cool.”

That desperation is reinforced when an attractive older girl approaches Mo at school and asks him if he can score her some molly, which she wants him to bring to the next house party. Feeling buoyed by this attention, Mo says yes and asks Zeke for help to get some molly. Of course, Zeke has the molly that Mo requests, along with a stash of other drugs that are randomly lying around his house.

Reuben and Sherri sense that Zeke isn’t a very good influence on Mo, but they still let Mo hang out with Zeke because Mo seems to be doing well-enough in his school academics and they don’t want Mo to resent them for being too restrictive. Reuben is more suspicious of Zeke than Sherri is. In a private moment alone with Zeke, Reuben even gives Zeke same cash to keep Mo out of trouble. Zeke takes the money. But then, like the smarmy person that he is, he asks Reuben for a raise. Reuben just has to shake his head and walk away.

Meanwhile, Mo starts a budding romance with Sophie. She’s his first date and first kiss. But once again, Zeke interferes by advising Mo to play hard to get after a while, in order to manipulate Sophie to like Mo even more. Zeke has a girlfriend named Holly (played by Sydney Sweeney), who is nice to Mo and very tolerant of Zeke’s childish ways. Holly parties with Zeke and his friends, but she also does things like cook for Zeke and make his house more domestic.

Unbeknownst to Mo and Holly, Zeke is still in love with Mo’s sister Kate, who is planning to go to law school. Zeke and Kate have a parking-lot hookup in Zeke’s car, but it’s an encounter that she immediately regrets and tells Zeke that it won’t happen again. She has also moved on to a responsible live-in boyfriend named Doug (played by Esteban Benito), who is the type of ambitious art-collecting yuppie that Zeke despises but secretly envies.

We know that Zeke is insecure about not measuring up to someone like Doug  because not long after meeting Doug (when Mo convinces Zeke to drive him over to Kate and Doug’s place), Zeke and Mo go to an art museum (it was Zeke’s idea of course), where Zeke tells Mo that he can appreciate art too. But viewers see how unsophisticated Zeke is when he foolishly thinks he can buy one of the paintings on display and offers a museum employee cash on the spot. (Whatever amount he offered was also obviously laughable.) Zeke has to settle for buying an oversized print at the museum gift shop instead.

The movie doesn’t really show what kind of academic student Mo is, but it’s implied that he’s probably good enough to consider going to college. However, Mo is definitely not “street smart.” He doesn’t realize until it’s too late that his new “social status” at school is very superficial because it’s about people using him to get drugs.

Mo’s relationship with Zeke is a little more complicated because of the big brother/little brother relationship they’ve had over the years. As Mo says about Zeke near the beginning of the film, “He was the man and he made me feel like the man.” But this type of co-dependence has now turned dark, as Mo gets more involved in dealing drugs to fellow students. The movie doesn’t let Mo off the hook so easily by portraying him as a completely innocent child corrupted by an adult, because despite Zeke’s influence, Mo still knew right from wrong and had a choice to do what he did.

As Kate tells Mo, it’s weird that Zeke wants to be best friends with a teenager, and it’s only because Mo makes Zeke feel cool. But to the rest of the world, Zeke isn’t cool. Her warnings to Mo fall on deaf ears. But there are signs that Mo knows she’s right, such as when Mo mentions to Zeke that he’s thinking of introducing Sophie to Zeke, but Mo asks Zeke to not make the moment into “The Zeke Show.”

Davidson has made a career of being an often-obnoxious, immature guy who’s not as funny as he thinks he is. Zeke is that kind of person too, so if you’re not a fan of Davidson, his Zeke character is going to wear very thin because it just seems like Davidson is playing a version of himself for the entire movie.

“Big Time Adolescence” is the first feature film from writer/director Jason Orley, who also directed Davidson’s “Alive From New York” Netflix comedy special. If Orley and Davidson continue to work together, it’ll be interesting to see if they can do something different from the same “man-child” shtick that Davidson has been stuck on repeat in doing. The Zeke character is almost a caricature because there’s no real depth to him, and the movie tells almost nothing about his background.

Because the movie revealed from the beginning that Mo gets arrested, there’s not much suspense to “Big Time Adolescence.” And it’s certainly not an original idea to do a movie about teenagers and young adults who like to party. But what saves this movie from complete mediocrity is Gluck’s authentic and sometimes emotionally touching performance as Mo, because Mo (not Zeke) is ultimately the one who grows up and is the character in the movie that audiences will care about the most.

Hulu released “Big Time Adolescence” in select U.S. cinemas and began streaming the movie on March 13, 2020. The streaming premiere date was moved up from March 20, 2020.