Movie review: Strong ensemble cast reigns in ‘King of Staten Island’
I’ve struggled to become a fan of “SNL” breakout Pete Davidson. He’s peculiar and his humor is equally bizarre. But in the autumn of 2018 he earned my respect by owning up to insensitively mocking Texas Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw, a decorated war hero who lost an eye in combat. In a fine display of humility, he brought Crenshaw onto the “SNL” stage the following week to apologize in front of millions on “Weekend Update.”
I was hoping for similar humbleness in “The King of Staten Island,” Davidson’s semi-autobiographical dramedy about a 24-year-old Islander like himself, afloat in inertia ever since his firefighter dad died in the line of duty 17 years earlier. In real life, Davidson’s father, also a fireman, was killed on 9/11 in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. In his honor, Davidson assumes his dad’s name, Scott, but not the old man’s penchant for heroics. His Scott, a lazy, grass-smoking high school dropout, is anything but a hero.
Like most leading men in Judd Apatow joints, Scott is afflicted with an acute case of arrested development. He lives with his mom (Marisa Tomei) and hangs exclusively with the same six or seven equally stilted pals, including his BFF with benefits, Kelsey (underutilized Bel Powley). Yet, arrogance is not a problem for aspiring tattoo artist, Scott - or Davidson, pretty much playing a thin version of himself. The childishness is no doubt a byproduct of Scott’s grief, but the self-involvement is a tad out of place given the immense troubles facing the world. And it drags on for nearly two hours before the maturity I was praying for finally rears its head.
Like that seminal moment on “SNL” with Crenshaw, Davidson becomes achingly human as a man of constant sorrow finally grasping onto something sturdy in the form of his mother’s new boyfriend, Ray (Bill Burr, outstanding). Like Scott’s dad, he’s a firefighter with the FDNY, and he’s about to not only rescue Scott, but also Scott’s gorgeous, vivacious mother, Margie, a nurse who’s shunned romance ever since her husband’s death.
It’s here that Apatow, who penned the scattershot script with Davidson and “SNL” writer Dave Sirus, finally finds his footing, delivering a funny, stirring third act strong enough to almost forget how badly the first two-thirds of “Staten Island” are botched. Tonally, those opening 90 minutes are all over the place, and for the most part, the gags - pedophilia, stealing opioids, Christa McAuliffe, etc. - land with a cacophonous thud. All that keeps you watching is Burr, making the most of a breakout role behind a mustache that’s a character onto itself.
Not only does he have chemistry with Tomei, equally terrific as the newfound love of Ray’s life, but even better, he holds his own opposite Davidson and his incessant mugging. The two are actually sweet together, as Scott grudgingly learns to love Ray like a father. But not until the two loudmouths have waged an ever-escalating war of words and deeds that are intermittently humorous, but never believable. In fact, nothing in “Staten Island” feels authentic. It’s more like a poorly connected series of skits (emblematic of Sirus and Davidson’s day jobs) that don’t begin to congeal until the final 30 of a 140-minute movie that’s about 45 minutes too long.
The reason the editing is so jumbled might be because there are no less than three cutters working on “Staten Island,” yielding a disjointed product that inexplicably fails to make use of its title location. The story could be set in Omaha or Nashville and still be the same. Where’s the local color? And where are the Islanders? The only residents we meet are Ray (a Boston native), Scott’s deadbeat pals, and Scott’s mother, sister (Apatow’s daughter, Maude) and aunt (Lynn Koplitz). The locations are similarly generic: Margie’s modest home, an Italian restaurant and Ray’s firehouse.
The latter is where Steve Buscemi pops up for no purpose beyond paying tribute to his former colleagues on the FDNY, with whom he served before becoming an actor. He’s great around a fire engine, but other than a couple of scenes highlighting his ability to make silk from mush, he’s wasted. In fact, the same could be said for the movie, which squanders a fine cast in a clumsily assembled dramedy. This simply isn’t Apatow’s forte, evidenced by his previous attempts at mixing humor and pathos: “Funny People” and “This is 40.” Comedy and comedy alone are where he flourishes, evidenced by his three biggest hits, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Trainwreck” and his masterpiece, “Knocked Up.”
Why must he be so serious? True, he has his moments, and Davidson - despite his obscene amount of tattoos - is real leading-man material. But without a more well-rounded script, both are marooned on an “Island” of misfit boys.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The King of Staten Island”
Cast includes Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow and Steve Buscemi. Available for rent on all platforms beginning Friday.
(R for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images.)