Ever since his first directorial effort – 2005’s The 40 Year-Old Virgin – turned Steve Carrell into a leading man, comedy empresario Judd Apatow has specialised in creating stars. He has since given plum roles to the likes of Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer, while kickstarting the careers of Jason Segel, Jonah Hill and Lena Dunham. In The King of Staten Island, Apatow’s latest muse is the much-maligned Pete Davidson, the Saturday Night Live comic who became better known as the schlubby boyfriend of one of the world’s biggest popstars.
The truth is, Davidson’s story is far more interesting than the tabloid chatter surrounding him, and Apatow plucks from Davidson’s family history and very public struggles with mental health to craft a narrative that blends fact with fiction. It’s well known that Davidson lost his father, a New York City firefighter, on duty on 9/11 and he pulls from that experience here as Scott, a listless twentysomething who lost his firefighter father at a young age and is still feeling the effects.
While his younger sister (Maude Apatow) is moving on to college, Scott remains in a state of arrested development. Crippled by depression, attention deficit disorder and low self-esteem, his career as a tattoo artist is so far limited to dodgy scrawlings on his reluctant stoner buddies and he’s unable to commit to childhood friend Kelsey (Bel Powley), who wants to take their secret hookups to the next level. His mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) has put her life on hold too, but when sparks fly with Ray (Bill Burr), another firefighter, Margie and Scott both have to face up to some life changes.
Charting a disaffected man-child’s transition into adulthood and responsibility is par for the course for Apatow and all the familiar touchstones are here. The dialogue has the improvised vibe we’re accustomed to from his films, and there are copious scenes of Scott and his buddies trading stoned witticisms, but tonally the film feels dialled back. Apatow has been venturing more into melancholy with each film and The King of Staten Island feels like the natural progression of that; the laughs are less riotous, instead imbued with truth and a little pain. It’s a perfect fit for Davidson who proves to be a compelling screen presence. All hangdog angst and wry observations, he manages to smoothly transplant the material from his stand-up act naturally into the film and make it feel like a guy just talking, rather than a five minute Comedy Cellar set dumped in the middle of a film.
Davidson is at his best when he shares the screen with fellow comedian Burr, and it’s their clash that provides the meat of the story in the back half of the film. Scott has obvious reservations about his mother dating another fireman, and Ray’s history of gambling and anger management issues doesn’t help. But as Scott inevitably gets involved with Ray’s firehouse – where he meets some of his father’s former colleagues, including a nicely avuncular Steve Buscemi – their relationship helps Scott build a better picture of his father and begin to find some kind of closure.
The film naturally takes a while to get to that point – another Apatow standard – but when it does, this is some of the most touching material of the director’s career. While his earlier efforts have certainly been funnier, The King of Staten Island is a mature and heartfelt observation of grief, and a well observed character study that provides the perfect vehicle for Davidson’s complicated backstory and surprisingly endearing persona.