It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Pete Davidson. The comedian and “Saturday Night Live” favorite has candidly talked about his struggles with depression in his past work, particularly in his Netflix special, “Pete Davidson: Alive From New York,” earlier this year. Though it was met with mixed critical reviews, the special saw Davidson use comedy to find solace in the loss of his father, a firefighter who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
But rarely has Davidson’s confrontation of this subject matter been as direct as it is in “The King of Staten Island,” a semi-autobiographical dramatic comedy co-written and directed by Hollywood heavyweight Judd Apatow. While the “Girls” and “Freaks and Geeks” showrunner isn’t a stranger to themes of mental health in his work, “Staten Island” is easily the director’s most dramatic departure from the comedies that have defined his career. Indeed, the film remains, to some extent, true to form for both its creative heads, but the confidence and vulnerability of “The King of Staten Island” sets it apart from either comedians’ previous works. It’s a film that exhibits remarkable self-awareness and reflection, and the successes of this vulnerability in “The King of Staten Island” certainly outweigh the flaws that accompany it.
“Staten Island” follows Davidson as Scott, a 20-something amateur tattoo artist whose life fell off track after the death of his father, a firefighter who died in the line of duty. It’s a deliberate self-insert — a look into the direction Davidson’s life may have taken if he had not discovered comedy — and Davidson’s portrayal of the character is raw and unfiltered. The film’s main narrative catalyst comes when Scott’s mother (Marisa Tomei) begins to date another firefighter (Bill Burr), which comes as a shock to Scott’s emotional shell. His confrontation of these emotions isn’t always pretty, and Davidson isn’t afraid to take the protagonist in unlikeable, but honest directions. Scott isn’t a romanticised character: He’s angry and emotionally isolated, and though the character never quite loses the audience’s sympathy, he occasionally walks the line of caustic and downright manipulative. It’s a compelling and unvarnished performance from Davidson, who deftly creates tension with co-stars Burr and Tomei.
With such strong performances and primary narrative, though, it is disappointing that the film often loses itself directionally and tonally. Most comedic sequences are hilarious and memorable in a vacuum; they’re an effective hybrid of witty dialogue and surreal juxtapositional humor, and are effectively set up in the scenes leading up to them. Where the film fumbles is in returning to its dramatic pacing after these almost sketchlike comedy scenes. The repercussions of some of the film’s funnier sequences are never fully addressed.
Similarly underwhelming is the romantic bond between Scott and Kelsey (Bel Powley). Though the character is an effective foil to Scott, the two are simply not given enough screen time together to make their subplot feel earned.These pacing issues only exacerbate the film’s overly long second act, which see many minor storylines tie disappointingly back into the film’s central emotional arc. “The King of Staten Island” ends up feeling more like a collection of solid, but loosely related scenes surrounding a compelling main narrative, rather than a fully cohesive stand-alone film.
Ultimately, “The King of Staten Island” is a film that knows what it wants to be. When it hits that mark — which is more often than not — it feels like the culmination of both Apatow and Davidson’s creative pursuits: It’s a darkly comedic but ultimately personal narrative, and it immaculately crafts emotional vulnerability. Davidson’s performance and wit are just as compelling as ever, as is Apatow’s signature brand of offbeat, slacker storytelling. At the same time, however, it’s not hard to see where the film could be improved, where certain elements and scenes overstay their welcome and where its comedic and dramatic modes are in tension. But for all of its faults, “The King of Staten Island” is still the kind of film that is sure to stick with audiences, and is likely to be remembered as an emotionally raw success for both Davidson and Apatow.