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The King Of Staten Island Review - Pete Davidson Gets Serious... Sort Of

Judd Apatow has a knack for finding diamonds in the rough and polishing them into bona fide stars. The writer/director/producer plucked Seth Rogen and James Franco out of obscurity for the short-lived cult series Freaks and Geeks, and helped turn Steve Carell, Amy Schumer, and Jonah Hill into household names with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Trainwreck, and Superbad, respectively. Now Apatow is hoping his Midas touch turns comedian Pete Davidson into box-office gold with new film The King of Staten Island, which premieres on demand June 12 on streaming services.

Although Davidson joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2014 at the tender age of 20, it wasn't until he dated Grammy-winning pop star Ariana Grande that he really stepped into the limelight. Their whirlwind engagement and subsequent breakup in 2018 took him to another level — one where he was plastered all over TMZ and grocery store tabloids. But with The King of Staten Island, it seems Davidson is looking to be taken more seriously. Or at least let us into his world a little to see what makes him tick.

Co-written by Apatow and Davidson (and former SNL writer Dave Sirus), the Apatow-directed film isn't quite what you'd expect from Davidson's first starring vehicle — and therein lies its charm. If a raucous, knee-slapping comedy is what you're expecting, you might be disappointed. The King of Staten Island operates with a subtle, slice of life-style humor that proves Davidson has talent that extends beyond making people laugh.

A semi-autobiographical snapshot of Davidson's life — or, perhaps, an alternate version of what his life could have been if he hadn't pursued comedy and succeeded — The King of Staten Island follows Scott (Davidson), a 24-year-old stoner with no direction who still lives with his mother on New York's Staten Island. (In real life, Davidson is a 26-year-old celebrity who has struggled with marijuana addiction and still lives with his mother on Staten Island.)

Like Davidson, Scott's firefighter father was killed in the line of duty when Scott was just 7, leaving him with severe depression and a host of other emotional issues. (Davidson's NYFD dad, Scott, died in the September 11 terrorist attacks.) Beyond that, the lines blur between what's fact and what's fiction.

Getting to the heart of the matter

In the opening scene of The King of Staten Island, Scott and his friends are getting high in his basement and selling Xanax to teenagers through the window when the new girl of the group spots one of Scott's tattoos — of which he has dozens. It's a tribute to his late father. When she starts asking questions about how he died, Scott's friends pile on her for killing the otherwise upbeat vibe, quickly devolving into dead dad knock-knock jokes: "Knock-knock." "Who's there?" "Not your dad!"

It's a telling scene, with Scott taking his feelings about his father just to the cusp of acceptance before jarringly being pulled back. Outwardly he's laughing along with his friends, but under the surface you can tell there are unresolved issues and immense pain associated with the topic.

His father's death has left him disillusioned and lost — he has no job, no motivation, and unrealistic life goals. He's obsessed with becoming a tattoo artist, even though he's no good at it. He practices on his friends, covering them in disfigured faces — "that ain't Obama!" — and questionable drawings (belly button butthole, anyone?), and dreams of opening a restaurant-slash-tattoo parlor called "Ruby Tattoosday."

But his life begins to change when he meets a 9-year-old kid on the beach and tries to give him a tattoo. The kid agrees, but runs off as soon as the needle touches his skin. That chance encounter leads to the kid's father, Ray (Bill Burr), coming to Scott's door in a fit of rage — only to wind up asking Scott's mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) out on a date.

When Scott is clued in on the seriousness of the relationship, he lashes out at his mother over the fact that Ray is also a firefighter. Is she trying to replace his dad? What if this guy dies in the line of duty too? The relationship propels Margie to give her son an ultimatum: move out of the house and start his own life. With the three of them sitting around the breakfast table, Scott thinks that Ray is trying to push him out of the picture. His emotions swing from anger to just being plain broken: "What's going on?" he dejectedly asks, before simply stating, "I don't like this."

It's a surprisingly nuanced performance from Davidson, who comfortably walks the line of self-deprecating jokester — as he often is in his stand-up and SNL skits — and puppy dog-eyed naiveté. ("Did you just make me a fireman?!" he blurts out when one of Ray's firefighter buddies — an underused Steve Buscemi — tells him to go clean the firehouse toilets.)

As the story unfolds, Scott and Ray clash to the breaking point, leaving Margie no choice but to throw them both out of her life. This leads the two men to bond, giving Scott renewed hope and some clear direction.

The King of Staten Island strikes an emotional chord

The King of Staten Island is obviously a deeply personal story for Davidson, whose art imitates life all the way down to the fact that he and his character are both heavily tattooed and suffer from Crohn's Disease. ("I'm just trying to raise awareness," Scott says after unceremoniously announcing that the autoimmune disease makes him "s*** all the time.")

And it clearly struck a chord with Apatow, who has produced plenty of high-profile feature films (Superbad, Bridesmaids, The Big Sick), but only directed a precious few — six, to be exact, including this one. Perhaps it was the delicacy of the story, or even of Davidson himself, who has publicly struggled with mental health issues. (If there's any downfall to the film it's that it clocks in at over two hours and occasionally drags at points.)

Sitting squarely in the "dramedy" genre, The King of Staten Island is an interesting peek into Davidson's life, taking him from over-the-top tabloid sensation who just so happens to appear on SNL to real-life guy with a funny streak just trying to make his way through life like the rest of us. But it never gets too heavy-handed or unbelievable, which can largely be attributed to Apatow, who has a knack for compassionate comedy.

But credit also has to be given to Davidson, whose first crack at co-writing and starring in a feature film shows he has real depth and a desire to deal with his problems head-on. Perhaps The King of Staten Island can finally bring Davidson some closure when it comes to his father's untimely death and help clear a path to a less turbulent lifestyle — possibly one that adds "movie star" to his growing list of accomplishments.