“There’s, like, something wrong with me.” Pete Davidson says this to a girl early in The King of Staten Island. The two friends-with-benefits have just slept together, and now she wants a legit relationship. But he dismisses the idea because, as he implies, he’s not worth pursuing. He’s an impulsive and manic screw-up who’s perfectly content hanging out with his buddies and smoking weed in the childhood house he shares with his beloved put-upon single mom.
One more note: Davidson is playing a guy named Scott. While Scott is a 24-year-old slacker, the 26-year-old Davidson just finished his sixth season of Saturday Night Live. And no doubt if you’re a fan of the shoot-from-the-hip comedy star/professional boo, there’s a voyeuristic appeal in deciphering the grey area between his fact and fiction. The problem is that Davidson himself doesn’t seem enthused about being either a leading man or a psychological case study. The attitude permeates throughout a half-baked movie that lacks the straight-down-the-middle warmth and humor we’ve been craving these past few months. It’s as if he’s waving his heavily inked arm and saying to his fans, “Sorry, kids, there’s nothing to see here.”
The King of Staten Island, co-written by Davidson and directed by Judd Apatow, has been billed for months as a semi-autobiography. Do a web search and you’ll learn that the movie is “a comedy-drama about Pete Davidson growing up in Staten Island, including losing his father during 9/11 and entering the world of stand-up comedy.” I’m still waiting for that plot to kick in. Yes, Scott is a native of the working-class New York City borough of Staten Island and his father was a firefighter who tragically died while on duty. There’s no mention of that terrible and historic day. (It’s later explained that he went into a hotel but didn’t make it out.) And Scott never utters the word “comedy,” let alone pursues a career in it.
The story at-hand is considerably more basic: Scott is in a state of arrested development with loose ambitions of becoming a professional tattoo artist. But he’s not great at it — in one of the few laugh-out-loud jokes, his friend complains about his questionable artwork of Barack Obama. His younger sister (Maude Apatow) is off to college; that girl-who’s-a-friend (Bel Powley) darts in and out of the picture; his mom (the great and totally sympathetic Marisa Tomei) has started to date a divorced firefighter (Bill Burr). When those two get serious, she nudges her son to leave the nest and make a few extra bucks by picking up her boyfriend’s kids after-school. But these mandates send Scott into an emotional tailspin, prompting him to make a series of face-palming decisions. It’s as if his character from the recent meh Hulu movie Big Time Adolescence got a change of scenery — not that any of you watched it.
Apatow has a knack for fleshing out “cute man-boy needs to grow up” narratives. Think about Seth Rogen learning he impregnated his one-night-stand in Knocked Up and Adam Sandler receiving his grave blood disorder diagnosis in Funny People and Steve Carell dating his first girlfriend in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Amy Schumer being tapped for a plum magazine assignment in Trainwreck. In all those winning comedies, there’s a shakeup; a plot device enabling our hero to move forward. But The King of Island is as aimless as its royal leader. See Scott watch a Purge movie with his buddies. See Scott stage faux-fights with his coworkers at his restaurant job to get tips. See Scott smoking weed again and again. (Um, but there’s a reason this movie was set to premiere at SXSW.) The only person here who steps up and gets out of a rut? Scott’s mom, the movie’s only interesting character.
These lived-in touches may have appealed on the big screen. But at home, the poor pacing of makes it all too easy to hit pause to see how much time remains. The answer in a 134-minute film: Too much. Scott isn’t the only who has trouble focusing — about five narrative threads fall by the wayside after Scott sort-of finds his purpose. (Apatow is a king at staging comedy hijinks, but not so much a dramatic robbery gone awry.) And the realization doesn’t even culminate in a joyous, highly re-watchable scene. Nobody expects Davidson to perform a choreographed dance to “Uptown Girl” or do a group sing-a-long to “Age of Aquarius” in a field of flowers but the unveiling of a tattoo is shoulder-shrug at best.
The irony is that Davidson’s actual life, even the loose version of it, is ridiculously fascinating. I wish he would have provided insight into how a still-grieving 21-year-old with ADD and Crohn’s Disease had the moxie to land a coveted spot on Saturday Night Live. What is his fixation with covering his gawky body — he’s called an “anorexic panda” — with more tattoos so that he resembles a walking mural? Why does he attract the likes of Ariana Grande and Kaia Gerber? Maybe because people have an inherent need to fix something or someone deemed “wrong?” I can’t speak about Davidson personally, but the desperation to repair his movie is real.
The King of Staten Island is available to rent on demand on Friday, June 12