Pete Davidson takes the arrested development crown in 'The King of Staten Island'

The beauty of "The King of Staten Island” comes in its ability to mix together a redemptive story with a cast of funny characters. 

The beauty of "The King of Staten Island” comes in its ability to mix together a redemptive story with a cast of funny characters. 

Image By: Universal Pictures

After years of Weekend Update appearances, bit roles in other movies and the (occasionally) funny stand up special, this past weekend offered up answers to a question I’ve pondered since the first time I saw his mischievous-looking grin during the “The Roast of Justin Bieber” on Comedy Central almost five years ago: what exactly is Pete Davidson supposed to be good at?

Lucky for us, if his star-making role in Judd Apatow’s new film “The King of Staten Island” is any good indicator, then maybe just playing himself is exactly what he’s excelled at this entire time.

“Staten Island” stars Davidson as the slightly autobiographical Scott Carlin, a 20-something burnout who lives in his mom’s basement and spends his days in New York’s least exciting burrow smoking marijuana with his friends and working towards a “career” as a fledgling tattoo artist. His supportive mother, played by Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei, doesn’t know quite how motivate Scott after his younger sister — Maude Apatow — finally leaves home for college, struggling to find the right words that will push him in any direction other until she meets and begins dating Ray, a no-nonsense New York City firefighter played by comedian Bill Burr. 

Ray and Scott have a contentious relationship from the outset when Scott gives Ray’s young son the beginnings of an ugly permanent tattoo, but as viewers soon figure out, Scott has a right to be a little bit sensitive after all. His father — once-great New York City firefighter Stan Carlin – died during a rescue mission when he was seven years old, echoing Davidson’s own real-life tragedy where his father was killed rescuing citizens from Ground Zero on 9/11. Needless to say, the prospect of his loving mother getting into her first real relationship with another firefighter leaves Scott frustrated and confused, and leads him to rely upon his childish antics and tendencies to cover up just how lost he seems in a world that doesn’t seem to love him back.

Like any great Apatow comedy of the past 15 years, the beauty of “Staten Island” comes in its ability to mix together a redemptive story with a cast of funny, but not overbearing characters along the way — spotlighted by none other than a genuinely heartwarming performance from Davidson himself. This isn’t Adam Sandler chasing penguins in “Billy Madison” or Jim Carrey spewing his buffoonery all over the screen in “Dumb and Dumber”, yet Davidson brings a uniquely charismatic energy that matches the form other “rising” comedians have tried — and failed, Amy Schumer — to bring to Apatow’s fairly honest blend of comedy/drama in the past. 

Moving between his innately dark humor in early scenes featuring a dark knock-knock joke from his friend to bordering on the edge of willful detachment before the film’s blue moments, Pete brings the sadness of his real-life story in a way that any almost anyone, grieving or not, can connect with — someone whose been lost in the world for a long time and seems to be waiting for the right moment or chance to begin again. It would be a gross understatement to say Davidson finally proves he’s worthy of praise for his candid, at times heart-rending acting talents and his ability to fill the screen with his goofy charisma works on many levels.

Yes, just like other slacker comedies Scott has the same “way too good for him” sort of girlfriend — played by newcomer Bel Powley — and other unrealistically supportive influences that want him to grow out of the dead end lifestyle that’s plagued him for years, but there’s just something about Pete that makes it all the more authentic and lovable anyways. Mix in moments of warmth from the usually arsenic-laced comedy of Burr and another great supporting turn from comedy’s best non-comedic actor in Steve Buscemi, and Apatow’s managed to direct his best film in almost a decade after 2015’s “Trainwreck” left everyone — mostly just me — a bit disappointed. Was I disappointed that Adam Sandler didn’t make a cameo as Scott’s father? Very; but after handing my roommate $5 for losing that bet, I figured I shouldn’t be so greedy.

While “Staten Island” manages to balance the tension between comedic highs and dramatic lows successfully for most part, in typical Apatow fashion the movie runs about 20 minutes too long and drags out the final act to make Scott’s epiphany resonate more with audiences. His friends, one of whom played by nearly unrecognizable Moises Ares of “Hannah Montana”, get themselves caught up in some pretty risky business that feels highly unrealistic — yes, even for the guy who made “Pineapple Express” and “40 Year Old Virgin” — with what we gather about earlier in the film, and the near-derailment of Scott’s redemptive storyline almost spurns him away from the path that Apatow and team create towards a new beginning. 

This is a moment where the tension feels a bit rushed and unnecessary, but it’s the only real sidestep in a journey that should keep you engaged and amused throughout — right from the moment Kid Cudi’s 2009 song “Pursuit of Happiness” takes you on a lovely little trip over the film’s opening credits. 

Across the board, “Staten Island” was still worth the $20 I paid to stream on VOD — something I’ve been waiting to see since I found out June 12 was approaching and before a global pandemic delayed my plans to visit the theatre anytime soon. It served as a brutally honest, often funny, sometimes heartbreaking answer to the question that’s filled my mind for years now, and it gave me hope that even if my life seems like it’s going nowhere sometimes, at least I’m not living out my days on Staten Island. If I were a successful betting man, I’d say we’ll be seeing Pete make the big screen leap like many fellow “Saturday Night Live” counterparts soon. And, unlike others, I hope he’ll stick with the guy we know — and love — best.

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