For six seasons on “Saturday Night Live” Pete Davidson has tempered humour with acute candor to forge a deeply personal kind of comedy based on his life experiences. His new film, “The King of Staten Island,” now on VOD, is his most self-confessional work yet.
Davidson plays Scott, a semi-fictional version of himself, as a directionless twenty-four-year old still living with his widowed mother Margie (Marisa Tomei). When he was seven his firefighter father was killed in the line of duty, leaving a wound on Scott’s psyche that has never healed. He’s so skinny and pale with such large dark circles under his eyes his on-and-off girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) says he “looks like an anorexic panda,” and his patchwork of random tattoos leads a friend to call him a “human sketchbook.” He dreams of one day opening up a restaurant-slash-tattoo parlor but spends most of his time smoking weed and hanging out with his childhood pals.
When Margie becomes romantically involved with Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter with a hair trigger temper, it forces Scott to confront the past tragedy in his life so he can move forward.
“The King of Staten Island” is an imagined version of Davidson’s life if he hadn’t found comedy and become famous. His father Scott was a member of Ladder Company 118 in Brooklyn Heights and died responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That loss has become the bedrock of his work and provides the emotional backbone of this film.
Director Judd Apatow is no stranger to making films with big hearts and dirty mouths. Like his previous films, like “Trainwreck,” he frontloads the story with outrageous laughs that slowly give way to a funny but more restrained resolution.
Along the way Davidson delivers a performance that lifts his patented millennial slacker routine to a new level. He’s a natural performer, charismatic and likeable, with a deep well of emotion that lies just beneath his pothead exterior. He’s a perfect vessel to tell a story about someone experiencing profound loss.
The supporting cast is terrific. Burr embodies the ragehead with a heart of gold, drifting through life while Tomei has an interesting arc as a woman who lets go of the past to find a new future.
The premise of “The King of Staten Island” doesn’t sound like the stuff of comedy but this story of how tragedy effects a family balances humour with heartfelt and humanistic observations in a very winning way.