The King of Staten Island review – Pete Davidson winning in freewheeling comedy

Davidson plays a would-be tattoo artist whose firefighter dad died in the line of duty in Judd Apatow’s charming, New York-set tale

It is not strictly relevant, but this film briefly breaks the unwritten movie rule that cocaine is the drug for bad people. Heroin can be for tragic jazz geniuses, LSD for visionaries or broad-minded experimentalists, MDMA for party animals and weed for lovable stoners – but coke is for cynics and nasty rich people heading for a well-deserved fall. Not here. With this richly enjoyable movie, comedy maven Judd Apatow has found a new register to go with his habitual stories of middle-aged angst and disillusion.

It’s a freewheeling and funny blue-collar dramedy set in Staten Island, New York, often feeling as if Bruce Springsteen has directed a remake of I Vitelloni. Apatow’s co-writer and star is 26-year-old Pete Davidson, the SNL comedian whose father, a New York City firefighter, died in 9/11. In an interestingly winning way Davidson channels the spirit of a young Adam Sandler. 

Davidson plays laid-back weed enthusiast and would-be tattoo artist Scott, whose life goals boil down to a horrifically unworkable plan to open a “tattoo restaurant”. He is secretly dating childhood friend Kelsey (Bel Powley, who played Princess Margaret in A Royal Night Out); and, whereas he is bleary and vague, she is alert and focused, with a mission to teach the world how great Staten Island is, and a fierce resentment of Brooklyn’s specious hipness.

When Scott’s younger sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), leaves for college, hopeless Scott is left alone with his stressed, widowed mom, Margie – a lovely performance from Marisa Tomei – who has still not got over the death of Scott’s dad, a firefighter who lost his life on duty; dopey Scott has nothing to do but hang out with dodgy friends. While he is doing this, he offers to give a tattoo to a nine-year-old kid that they meet wandering alone on the beach: a genuinely shocking and tense scene. It is an awful moment that is to bring a second firefighter into Scott’s life: Ray, played by Bill Burr.

Lovely performance … Marisa Tomei with Pete Davidson.
Lovely performance … Marisa Tomei with Pete Davidson. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

At first, Davidson has an opaque and slightly unreadable screen presence: his face always either pale or flushed, displaying a tolerant, amused, slack-jawed incredulity at other people’s uptightness, and a bovine calm in the face of their demands that he do something, such as get a job or a place of his own. He always looks terribly ill; Kelsey describes him aptly as looking like an “anorexic panda”, and he has the knack of translating the “real” persona of his standup act into film fiction.

Will Scott ever do anything with his life? It is Ray’s scepticism on this subject that almost propels Scott into a life of crime; he is saved only by his own profound incompetence. Apatow and Davidson create some interestingly angry speeches for Scott about how firefighters leave behind them families torn apart with pain and they should never have children. It is a form of emotional dissent that (perhaps inevitably) is counterbalanced with some heartfelt material about the firefighters’ camaraderie and unassuming heroism.

The King of Staten Island is not structurally perfect. There is a rather contrived crisis the purpose of which is to bring Claire, Scott and Ray together at last, but there is charm and gentleness in this new stepfamily. Powley’s performance and the final shots of the Staten Island ferry brought back happy memories of Joan Cusack in Mike Nichols’s 80s classic, Working Girl. There are a lot of laughs here. 

• The King of Staten Island is available on digital platforms from 12 June.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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