It’s hard to pull off a cohesive tone with dramedies about mental illness. The comedy part demands a quippy protagonist who masks their inner pain with killer comebacks. The drama part comes with the obligatory scenes of emotional purge, the defensive walls tumbling down and our protagonist exposing their fragile state. The tonal shift can be sudden enough to give you whiplash.
Pete Davidson co-wrote and stars in The King of Staten Island, a messy but honest exploration of a millennial stoner’s journey to finding purpose in life despite living with grief and depression. Davidson is sometimes uncomfortably open about his own struggles with mental health in his stand-up act; his no-fucks-given vibe, combined with co-writer/director Judd Apatow’s brand of R-rated wholesomeness, culminates in a series of beautifully raw moments.
Consider a scene where Scott (Davidson) begrudgingly goes to a minor league baseball game with his mother Margie’s (Marisa Tomei) new boyfriend, Ray (Bill Burr). Ray’s a firefighter, which is a big deal breaker for Scott: His dad was one, at least before he died on the job when Scott was only seven (the same thing happened to Davidson, whose father died on 9/11). Unable to process his grief, Scott unloads on Ray and his firefighter friends about how cruel it is for them to raise families, knowing they can die and leave a mess like Scott behind. The moment isn’t played for pathos, or for awkward laughs, and such vulnerability can be both hilarious and a natural way to express Scott’s anger at the world without hamfisted exposition.
Earlier, Scott tells his little sister Claire (Maude Apatow, who’s become quite a nuanced actor), worried about Scott’s mental state as she prepares to head for college: “I’ll probably harm myself. If there’s anyone who will harm himself, it’s probably me.” Rather than abjectly melancholic, to Scott, that aside is on-brand silliness. Even when Apatow expectedly meanders through an overindulgent and needlessly sprawling narrative, Davidson’s dedication to creating a sincere, semi-autobiographical character free of genre considerations always draws the focus back to him.
This loose character-study structure, or lack thereof, can be both refreshing and frustrating. The weed-infused banter between Scott and his BFFs (Ricky Velez, Moises Arias and Lou Wilson), culminating in a bittersweet confession about Scott’s shitty tattoo work, crackles with the energy that’s expected from Apatow’s reputation as a stalwart of bromance humor. Apatow’s known for shooting an insane amount of footage, combining improvisation with tightly structured sequences, and then figuring out the pacing in post. This results in many scenes and sub-plots that hinder the flow of the overall experience.
Accordingly, plenty of The King of Staten Island’s plot threads are either underdeveloped or left hanging. One centers around Scott’s complex romantic relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley), who desperately seeks more commitment from him. Scott’s fear of loss, manifesting in a manufactured laissez-faire attitude, is an important part of his development, yet his dynamic with Kelsey is dropped halfway through before being unceremoniously resolved in the film’s climax. This is especially disappointing because Powley’s intuitive performance promises so much more from this character.
Likewise, detours about Scott’s friends’ criminal aspirations don’t really go anywhere and don’t add much to Scott’s journey. A sequence that takes place in a tattoo parlor appears to introduce a big addition to Scott’s arc, but is never mentioned again (though the scene does contain a hilarious back-and-forth between Scott and a neo-Nazi). Apatow appears to be motivated by the amount of funny moments in any given scene without considering if it adds much to the overall story. His films tend to be at least 20 minutes too long.
The story gets back into its groove when Scott has to reconcile with Ray’s place in his mother’s life, as well as his father’s legacy, at the same time. Burr was born to play the quintessential “cranky working class middle-aged dad with a heart of gold” archetype; he fit the part even when he was an up-and-coming comic in his 20s. The grayscale, docu-drama depiction of Staten Island by P.T. Anderson’s regular DP Robert Elswit mirrors Scott’s depression, and subtly lightens up as Scott discovers his worth. Scott’s growth was always going to be tied to his toxic relationship with Ray, and it’s in this dynamic The King of Staten Island shines. The movie is indulgent and unfocused, but it’s also gripping and full of life. Kind of like its protagonist.
Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Judd Apatow, Pete Davidson, Dave Sirus
Starring: Pete Davidson, Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei, Bel Powley, Ricky Velez, Moises Arias, Lou Wilson
Release Date: June 12, 2020