Judd Apatow’s movies have been the gateway drug to cinema for the likes of Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, and Amy Schumer, and his latest effort The King of Staten Island introduces another new face. Plucked from the Saturday Night Live breeding ground of talent, Pete Davidson stars as Scott Carlin, a twentysomething layabout that spends his days tattooing himself or anyone that’ll let him near enough with a needle. When his younger sister flees the family nest for college and his mum Margie (Marisa Tomei) gets a new boyfriend, he is forced to finally grow up, and part of this process is the coming to terms with the loss of his firefighter father.
At surface level, the story of an endearing loser turning their life around isn’t at all original. It’s formed the basis for many a film, even those made by Apatow in the past. What sets this aside is the semi-autobiographical personal touch which enhances the emotional notes. Davidson has co-written the script and puts a lot of himself into the narrative; he sports the same trademark ink all as Scott, he also suffers from Crohn’s disease, and his father was killed fighting the blaze during 9/11. The impactful themes of grief are nicely balanced with comedy, with Davidson shifting his self-deprecating stand-up shtick from stage to screen with aplomb.
Though Davidson impresses in his debut leading role, it helps that he has excellent people around him to prop up his performance. Marisa Tomei brings a lot of class, enjoying an interesting subplot as Margie gets a second chance at love with Ray, portrayed by comedian Bill Burr who leaves laughs behind for an antagonistic straight-guy turn. British star Bel Powley and veteran actor Steve Buscemi are brilliant in their all-too-brief guest spots, the former as Scott’s comical ‘it’s complicated’ girlfriend and the latter as a wizened old firefighter who imparts great nuggets of wisdom as the plot reaches its sentimental strides.
He is best known for presenting idiotic stoner protagonists who eventually come good, but Judd Apatow has now also developed as a writer and as a director, stepping up from dick joke comedies to more nuanced, meaningful work. Tackling hard-hitting themes, the emotion in this piece is just as, if not, more integral to the film’s success than the humour, and The King of Staten Island might just be his most accomplished film to date.