The King of Staten Island is a hangout movie, which might not come as too big of a surprise considering it’s directed by Judd Apatow. Yeah, it’s not a short movie, a staple for Apatow. And it kind of drifts – not aimlessly; there is considerable aim – but certainly with a lack of urgency, from vignette to vignette of Scott’s (Pete Davidson) aimless (now, yes, he is aimless) life.
There’s something strangely comforting about The King of Staten Island. And I think it is that deliberate pacing. In a world right now when things change in a fraction of every second, The King of Staten Island is on its own metronome. So much that it’s difficult at first to switch from the wavelength of the real world to the wavelength of this movie, but after you do, it’s nice. Just a day hanging out with some pals. Something most of us haven’t done in months.
The King of Staten Island is loosely based on Pete Davidson’s own personal life. Loosely in that Scott’s father died in 2004 (Davidson’s father tragically died during the attacks of September 11, 2001). And also loosely that Scott isn’t a famous person who is in the cast of Saturday Night Live. Scott is an aspiring tattoo artist (kind of subbing in for Davidson’s comedy career) who doesn’t do much of anything but give his friends less than great tattoos and hang out with drug dealers.
After giving an underage kid a tattoo, Scott is confronted by that boy’s father, Ray (Bill Burr), who then begins courting Scott’s mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), to the dismay of Scott. At its heart, The King of Staten Island is about the relationship between Scott and Ray. Scott, adrift, with no real plan to do much of anything. And Ray, a firefighter like Scott’s father, who is both tough as nails and just trying to do his best.
Again, yes, it’s long. Judd Apatow makes long movies. It’s almost weird to complain about it at this point because it’s just literally a thing he always does. And I like that his movies are long. I think Apatow creates characters that need time to marinate so we get the full desired emotional impact. But it’s a specific wavelength, and if you don’t think you’ll have the patience for what I’m describing, then, no, you probably won’t. (Though, there is one sequence I can’t really go into the details of for spoiler reasons, that I could have maybe done without. Just because it’s so unlike the rest of the movie and I truly feel the film doesn’t need it.) And with Pete Davidson’s Scott, what’s interesting is over the course of this film, we see a full arc in his life, yet it hasn’t changed all that much. I see some people kind of guessing the plot of this movie is Scott eventually wants to be a fireman like his father. And from the marketing and the trailer, I can see where that misconception comes from. But that is not at all the plot of The King of Staten Island. And Davidson gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as Scott. This isn’t the “self-deprecating, yet cool” persona he, mostly, does on “Weekend Update.” Davidson lets his guard down for this role and, in turn, delivers something pretty great.
But the big standout here is Bill Burr. Burr has always been lurking in the shadows of mainstream success … just on that cusp. It was kind of a “cool thing” if you knew who Bill Burr was or was familiar with his comedy. Last fall his stock exploded after one episode of The Mandalorian (and he’s coming back for more in the upcoming season). Now here’s Burr as almost the co-lead, trading verbal barbs (and later, physical ones) with Pete Davidson and it’s an absolute pleasure to watch. I hope The King of Staten Island leads to even more Bill Burr in our lives.
Look, this is a pretty tumultuous time in the United States right now. When I first watched The King of Staten Island, the biggest story in the news was Covid-19 and, yes, I found it comforting just watching a movie about living life and trying to be a better person. Obviously a lot has changed since then and, no, there’s no claim here that The King of Staten Island is in any way relevant to current events. (Well, other than the continued threat of Covid-19 and the firefighters who still go out there every day to save lives.) And it’s weird to even be writing a movie review right now, but that’s literally a part of my job, so this was it. But, regardless, I still enjoyed it. And I hesitate to call it a “distraction” from what’s going on because, in a time like this, people need to stay focused, not distracted. But if you do need a, let’s say, mental break, The King of Staten Island is pretty good for that.
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