Pete Davidson (“Saturday Night Live”) is a polarizing figure. He’s known for becoming one of the youngest-ever cast members on “SNL” at age 20 and his brief engagement and subsequent messy breakup with Ariana Grande, among other things. Most importantly, he’s known for his blunt and brash comedy — whether he’s talking about sex, weed or mental health, Davidson is all about pushing the envelope on what’s acceptable to say out loud. His controversial opinions and unapologetic nature have often overshadowed his talent — the “Controversies” section of his Wikipedia page is long — but his standing as tabloid fodder has made him famous beyond the “SNL” bubble. Davidson often talks openly about aspects of his life that most celebrities guard closely, such as candid observations of his personal relationships or the tragic loss of his father, a firefighter who died while responding to the 9/11 attacks when Davidson was seven. It makes sense that, rather than keep himself hidden from the public eye, he would literally make his personal life into a wide-release film.
Directed by Judd Apatow (“Trainwreck”) and partially written by Davidson, “The King of Staten Island” has been advertised as what Pete imagined his life would’ve been like if he hadn’t gone into comedy using a surrogate character, Scott Carlin (Davidson), named after Davidson’s deceased father. For all intents and purposes, Scott and Pete are the same, even if their stories diverge a little: They have the same impulsive behavior, deadpanned comedy and effortless charm that makes it difficult to dislike them. Although, truthfully, Scott is easy to dislike at first. He’s lazy and disrespectful towards his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei, “My Cousin Vinny”) and his sister Claire (Maude Apatow, “Euphoria”). He pulls idiotic stunts, like trying to tattoo a child, because he thinks he can get away with it — and he often does, through charisma alone. He uses his mental health issues, ADD and tragic losses to justify his impulsive and idiotic behavior, and very few people call him out on it. Things change when his mother starts dating Ray (Bill Burr, “F is for Family”), a firefighter. Scott is forced to confront his residual feelings about his father’s death, but he and Ray, headstrong polar opposites, constantly butt heads. The dysfunction of their conflict carries some of the comedy, and most of the film’s emotional weight.
Despite its veteran director and charismatic main lead, the reality is that “The King of Staten Island” is too long — it’s got chunks of dead weight that push its runtime to a whopping two-and-a-half hours. The pacing is slow, with delightfully poignant scenes undercut by scenes that feel unnecessary, like uneventful hangouts with Scott and his buddies or a love story that feels like an afterthought. These chunks of dead wood are something Apatow has struggled with in past films, where an uncomfortable attempt at a cheap laugh ruins an otherwise delightful film. Some of the best moments occur when Scott takes Ray’s kids to school — the image of a tall, scrawny, tattooed 20-something holding the hands of two little kids is comical in its own right, but his sweet conversations and encouragement are incredibly charming. Yet that moment of charm is detracted by other scenes, like an attempted pharmacy raid that is uncomfortably long and violent.
After getting kicked out of the house, Scott goes to live at the firehouse with Ray and begins to bond with the other firefighters. This is when the film truly gains its footing, hitting all the right emotional notes; the problem is that it takes over an hour to get there. Still, the moments at the firehouse are incredibly well done. As he gets to know the guys in the firehouse, he starts to reconcile with his father’s memory. There’s a moment when Scott goes with the rest of the firefighters to an active fire, and he just watches. It’s a moment that’s simple but powerful, not only for Scott but for Davidson. These moments of vulnerability are common, and they tell you so much about the enigma that is Pete Davidson and the way he thinks. Us as viewers have no way of knowing what’s really Pete and what’s fiction, but it’s still powerful even in the midst of comedy fueled by the Pete Davidson Shock Factor — dark and occasionally too far. Truthfully, this movie is a lot like Davidson himself: funny in a way that toes the line, probably a bit more likable than it should be. It’s Pete’s movie, through-and-through, with his heart and soul poured into it for the whole world to see — which, to me, seems just right.