The King of Staten Island review – Judd Apatow strikes gold with an unlikely subject

A Pete Davidson biopic might not be the most obvious choice, but this portrait of arrested development is complex and rich with detail

Nobody better understands Pete Davidson’s flaws than Pete Davidson. The Saturday Night Live comedian has made headlines for countless reasons over the years – his love life, his substance abuse, his outré comedy – but his story is finally told right in The King of Staten Island.

His life is in the hands of king of comedy Judd Apatow, back in the directing chair. But this is a far cry from Knocked Up or Trainwreck – this Apatow comedy finds immense depth and complexity. Of his filmography to date, the ambitious, wise Funny People seems like the best pairing.

Davidson plays Scott, a loose version of himself (named after his late father), a 24-year-old self-confessed loser who can’t seem to find his way in life. “I feel bad that you don’t think you’re great,” his childhood best friend Kelsey (Bel Powley) tells him. They hook up, but in secret – Scott does like her, but thinks she deserves better.

It’s true: Scott isn’t great. He spends too much time smoking weed with his friends, giving tattoos to whoever will let him, scrolling on Instagram, waiting for the days to end. “I have Crohn's, I’m fucked up up here, I can’t find my watch,” Scott says one morning. It’s this kind of humour, at once playful and tragic, balancing serious lived-in pains with day-to-day idiocies, which exemplifies the credible and commendable comedy of The King of Staten Island.

The film is laugh-out-loud funny across a dozen improbable moments, as Scott effortlessly swaps between frivolity and humiliation. Apatow and Davidson never try to idolise Scott (and thus Davidson), but in smart direction and wry scripting, the different shades of Scott’s nature, paradoxical and often frustrating, earn empathy.

This portrait of one man is also made greater by the world that's built around him. Apatow enlists Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit to shoot the picture, breathing beautiful texture into what could have been bland TV film basics. Low-lit scenes, as Scott smokes weed in a basement, or as he waits by a car during a petty crime, are detailed and full of grain. It inspires you to pay more attention, take it more seriously, as if the beauty of what’s being filmed makes it matter all the more.

The world is also enhanced by the people surrounding Scott – every actor does fine, open-hearted work. Marisa Tomei plays Scott’s mother with endearing enthusiasm, Maude Apatow and Pauline Chalamet are his ambitious younger sister Claire and her best friend Joanne, Bel Powley is ferociously good as Kelsey, and Moises Arias, firmly moving ever further from his Hannah Montana days, is tremendous as one of Scott’s friends, Igor. And, well… it’s always a treat to see Steve Buscemi.

The could-be antagonist is Ray (Bill Burr), an angered neighbour who then starts dating Scott’s mum. He’s a firefighter, like Scott’s dad was – and so they clash. But The King of Staten Island doesn’t take the easy way out, devolving into a mere battle between the pair. Their relationship evolves: they wrestle, but ultimately learn about bravery and masculinity from each other.

It's a film filled with thousands of details to love, with endless care put into telling a complicated story right – and proving why it’s worth caring about. Davidson’s self-awareness, both self-deprecating and astute, makes everything connect: it’s not a magic cure just to acknowledge a problem – he has a lot of work to do. But here people accept and rationalise their anger. Pain is processed. Vulnerability is, with some effort, embraced, and love is let in. This might be a comedy about an aimless, far from faultless man, but it’s also testament to just how much good he still can give.

The King of Staten Island is available on VOD platforms from June 12.

Where to watch

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