The opening scene of The King of Staten Island finds Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) barrelling down a highway, hip-hop blasting from his car’s speakers as he abruptly closes his eyes and keeps his foot on the gas. A few seconds later, Carlin’s gaze returns to the road just in time to narrowly avoid a line of stopped traffic, leaving him shaken but unscathed and muttering ‘I’m sorry.’
It hints at an exploration of Davidson’s struggles with mental health, but it’s ultimately a red herring – a jarring kick-off to another overlong Judd Apatow dramedy that simply meanders from one semi-autobiographical beat to the next.
Just like Adam Sandler played a stand-up past his prime in Funny People and Amy Schumer embraced her unlucky-in-love persona in ‘Trainwreck’, under Apatow’s direction Davidson plays a thinly veiled version of himself: a twentysomething Staten Islander living in his mother’s basement, still grappling with the loss of his firefighter father, who died when he was a kid. But whereas Davidson found stand-up comedy and joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, Carlin is afraid to leave the safety of his perpetually hazy man cave. Instead, he jokes about opening a combination tattoo parlour and restaurant (‘Ruby Tattoos-day’s’) and admits, ‘There’s something wrong with me mentally, like, I’m not okay.’
After years spent dodging the responsibilities of adulthood, Carlin has his life upended when his younger sister (Maude Apatow) leaves for college and his mother (Marisa Tomei) begins dating Ray (Bill Burr), who just happens to be a firefighter. While Carlin clearly wants his mum to be happy, he’s resistant to her entering a relationship with another man who puts his life on the line, bluntly stating, ‘Look what happened last time.’ His contentious interactions with Ray don’t help the situation, leading his mother to issue an ultimatum: it’s time for Carlin to move out, get a job and start taking care of himself.
Forced out of his comfort zone, Carlin churns through a variety of possible futures: he busses tables at a local pizzeria, pursues a tattoo parlour apprenticeship, becomes an accomplice to an attempted robbery, briefly entertains the idea of enrolling in college and cleans toilets at a Staten Island fire station. But by the time the credits roll, there’s still no clear indication of what path Carlin will take or, perhaps more importantly, how he’ll confront the lasting psychological toll of his father’s death.
Playing a more troubled variation of himself isn’t much of a stretch for Davidson, and there’s a likeability to his default underachieving bro persona that’s endearing, if not exactly captivating (much like his recent turn in Big Time Adolescence). He’s at his best when trading barbs with Apatow as his concerned sister or playing off the subtle warmth of Tomei, who solidifies herself as Hollywood’s go-to mom. It’s not until late in the film that Steve Buscemi – briefly featured in the role of a veteran fireman – steals the show with the film’s most heartfelt monologue, candidly reminiscing about Carlin’s father at an appropriately dingy Staten Island dive bar.
Unfortunately, the talented cast and authentic locales aren’t enough to combat a sluggish script, filled with superfluous tangents that inflate the runtime past two hours. It doesn’t help that the film seems afraid to open up in any meaningful way about its main character’s mental health problems, which is surprising considering how candid Davidson has been about his own battles. Like a slacker resistant to efficiency or introspection The King of Staten Island is content to coast, with Apatow overseeing an aimless story uncharacteristically light on laughs that ultimately proves to be a royal waste of time.
Released: On Netflix now
Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Marisa Tomei. Maude Apatow