By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
‘The King of Staten Island’
Rated R (for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images). Running time: 137 minutes.
Scott is the worst. THE. WORST.
He’s a preternaturally unmotivated 24-year-old going through life in a pot- and pill-induced stupor, dividing his time between watching TV from his living room sofa and watching TV in a grungy basement with his stoner friends. He regularly hooks up with a friend but won’t let her come around his family. He can’t keep a job, but says he has big plans to one day open a combination restaurant/tattoo parlor. (He’ll call it Ruby Tattoosday’s, but Health Code Violation would be more fitting.) And when a 9-year-old kid asks Scott to give him a tattoo, well, let’s just say Scott doesn’t immediately dismiss the idea.
And yet somehow, there’s something … redeemable about this lanky loser with the big sad eyes and the quick wit. We know he’s hurting inside, and if he can just get out of his own way and be honest with himself, an actual human being just might rise to the surface.
Pete Davidson is the titular character in Judd Apatow’s sharp, funny and insightful slice of life “The King of Staten Island,” and there’s no small resemblance between actor and character, given Davidson grew up on Staten Island and loves to smoke pot — and, like Scott, lost his firefighter father at a young age. Still, Davidson delivers a fully realized, nuanced performance, tackling dark comedy and raw drama with equal aplomb.
From the moment we see Scott, driving along and deliberately closing his eyes for an excruciatingly long amount of time in a semi-death wish, we know this guy is lost. He cloaks his pain in a thick veneer of I-don’t-give-a-bleep, whether he’s trading sarcastic quips with his ragtag friends Oscar (Ricky Velez), Igor (Moises Arias) and Richie (Lou Wilson), or saying he’ll be right outside to say goodbye to his well-adjusted younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow), who is leaving for college — but first he wants to watch the end of this episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
Scott and his buddies are spectacularly underachieving knuckleheads, but there’s a cleverness and a verbal rhythm to their stupid humor. When a new girl visits their dusky lair, one guy warns her away from his buddy, saying, “Don’t talk to him. He has chlamydia.” The response: “I don’t have chlamydia. I DID have chlamydia. You introduced me to the girl who gave me chlamydia, so you basically gave me chlamydia.”
Not even the tragic death of Scott’s father is off-limits. In fact, Scott is so bent on reassuring everyone he’s fine, he encourages jokes such as:
“Not your dad!”
Bel Powley is captivatingly good as Kelsey, Scott’s sort-of girlfriend, who talks as tough as the guys but is smart and ambitious, and unabashedly proud of their surroundings. She wonders aloud: “Why can’t Staten Island be as cool as Brooklyn?” And she’s taking steps to get a city planning job so she can eventually champion her home borough. Kelsey would also like to explore a serious relationship with Scott, but he says it’s a bad idea. He has messed-up feelings. He’s on antidepressants. He’s afraid he could hurt himself or someone else.
Things are starting to change in Scott’s world, and Scott hates change. Kelsey has had it with being treated like an afterthought, Claire has gone off to college and, most horrifying of all, Scott’s mother (Marisa Tomei, typically wonderful) has started dating for the first time in 16 years. Even worse, this guy Ray (Bill Burr, in a strong dramatic/comedic turn) is a firefighter who was acquainted with Scott’s dad. Scott might have to grow up whether he wants to or not. He might even have to … MOVE OUT OF THE HOUSE.
Per Apatow’s usual modus operandi, “The King of Staten Island” has a running time of 2 hours 17 minutes, but it never feels overlong. There’s breathing room for a myriad of subplots, including an ill-conceived robbery attempt and the wildly irresponsible Scott somehow tasked with walking Ray’s two young children to school and back.
This movie is very specific to its locale and characters, and yet it has a universal working-class touch. I grew up in a Chicago south suburb 800 miles and decades removed from this story, yet there was much to which I could relate. Every scene in “The King of Staten Island” feels lived-in and real, thanks to the richly layered script, Apatow’s sure-handed direction, the universally excellent lead performances and some crackling good extended cameos from Pamela Adlon as Ray’s ex-wife; Kevin Corrigan as Scott’s cousin, who gives Scott a job as a busboy in his restaurant; and Steve Buscemi as a veteran firefighter who ran around with Scott’s dad back in the day.
As Scott learns some unexpected truths about his father and finally shows signs of becoming a useful adult, sure, some plot developments are a little too tidy — but hey, this is what we’re hoping for, that Scott can finally come to grips with his loss and begin to move on to the next chapters of his young life.
We hope that for Pete too.