Universal's 'King of Staten Island' stars Pete Davidson — and a character we've seen before

"The King of Staten Island" would have done its subject more justice if it had figured out how to include more of Davidson in the film. Or less. Or both.
Image: The King of Staten Island
From left, Alexis Rae Forlenza, Pete Davidson and Luke David Blumm in "The King of Staten Island."Mary Cybulski / Universal Pictures
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By Noah Berlatsky

Pete Davidson's slow, stoned persona, mixing confessional revelation and wigged-out understatement, is one of the most original and charming in current comedy. He's like an oddly sweet cross between Woody Allen and Steven Wright — all shuffling self-deprecation, but with more narrative cohesion than the second and without the first's flashes of creepy egotism and misogyny. With scads of charisma and a built-in audience from “Saturday Night Live,” it was only a matter of time before Davidson made the leap to feature-length films, like many cast member before him.

It was only a matter of time before Davidson made the leap to feature-length films, like many of his cast members before him.

Davidson played a major character in 2019's "Big Time Adolescence," but "The King of Staten Island," directed by Judd Apatow, is the Davidson star vehicle fans have been waiting for — for better and worse. There are some good choices; whoever decided Davidson would be adorable interacting with kids was spot on. But the structure and conventions of a mainstream film mean we get both too much and too little of Davidson, who crowds out other characters even as the more interesting bits of his biography are sanded off and trimmed down. Faced with a quirky and unusual new talent, Apatow, and Hollywood, disappointingly default to its usual formula.

That formula in this case is Apatow's old standby of man-child learns life lessons and belatedly comes of age. Davidson plays Scott, a 24-year-old high school dropout who lives with his mom and spends all his time watching bad TV and smoking pot. Scott's father was a fireman who died on the job when Scott was 8, and that trauma is brought up again when his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) starts to date another fireman, Ray (Bill Burr). Scott predictably hates Ray and tries to break him and his mother up. Eventually he connects with Ray's colleagues, many of whom knew his father. You can guess most of the story from there.

One of the chief frustrations of the film is that it's a first-rate ensemble drama trapped inside a gangly star vehicle. Scott, the wounded white guy who needs to grow up, is surrounded by more original and interesting characters who don't ever get the space to follow their own narrative arcs.

Margie, who lost her difficult, heroic husband, and is dating again after 16 years, seems worthy of a "Mrs. Fletcher"-type miniseries. Scott's on-again, off-again girlfriend, Kelsey (Bel Powley), is determined to get a job for the city working in development so she can help rejuvenate Staten Island. Her fumbling, determined, idiosyncratic passion for urban planning would be worth exploring at some length. And the lone black female firefighter in Ray's stationhouse seems like she'd have a story to tell — though she doesn't even get any lines. The film wants you to keep looking at the king, but I kept wishing he'd move aside a little so we could see more of Staten island.

The life of Pete Davidson that features in his stand-up routines is messier than the one in "King of Staten Island," but it's also more engrossing. Real-life Pete is, obviously, a lot more successful than his hapless movie counterpart. He's one of the youngest “SNL” cast members of all time; he dated Ariana Grande, who referred to the size of his genitals in her breakup music video; he has met Louis CK, who (surprise) was a total jerk. For that matter, Davidson's real firefighter father died not in a local fire, but in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Davidson's stand-up is so successful in part because of the way his sets wander in a daze between his own skull and a wider world, so it's sometimes hard to tell which is which.

The film's failure to capture the complexity of the real-life Davidson is perhaps most clear in its treatment of his tattoos. In the film, Scott isn't an actor, but he still has aesthetic interests: He's an aspiring tattoo artist who practices on his friends. His increasing proficiency is used to chart his growing emotional maturity, as per coming of age tropes.

But in real life, Davidson says he started getting tattoos to cover up scars from self-harm — and those tattoos range from commemorations of his relationship with Grande to images of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Hillary Clinton. Tattoos in Davidson's life are a chronicle of interior life and public commitments. But in the film, they’re just a series of gags and a typical Hollywood plot point. Obviously, the movie doesn't need to adhere to Davidson's life in all particulars, but it's baffling that it seems to go out of its way to make onscreen Scott less interesting than the guy he's based on. It's not ideal when you end a movie thinking you'd rather have just heard the star talk about his tattoos for two hours.

Apatow and Davidson obviously decided they didn't want to try to fit all of those images into their little Staten Island. But they also didn't want to explore their island in depth. The result is a one-note film centered on a character we've seen before. The movie is watchable enough, and Davidson fans will certainly find plenty to enjoy. But "The King of Staten Island" would have done its subject more justice if it had figured out how to include more of Davidson in the film. Or less. Or both.