I’m going to give away the ending of Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” a wonderful narrative drama with humor starring and about “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson. After watching Davidson, covered in tattoos, deep shadows around his eyes, play a manchild named Scott, the movie ends a card comes up saluting Pete’s real dad, a fireman who died on September 11th. And you realize they’ve named the main character after this guy. I defy you to not be moved.
I met Pete Davidson six years ago when Lorne Michaels had a cast and press dinner for “SNL.” Pete was 21, had just started on the show, and looked like an awkward duck that had just emerged from his shell. You could tell he was quick and funny but that sadness about his dad just hung over him. Six years later, it’s still there, as we’ve watched him cling to the “SNL” raft and try to swim on his own. He’s self-conscious, shaky, and endearing. Forget about who he dates. You worry that he’s going to live til the next show.
So Judd Apatow, whose movies like “Trainweck” and “This is 40” I’ve adored, has fashioned Pete’s life into a fiction with him and spread it out into two hours and 17 minutes. “The King of Staten Island” could have been two hours with DVD extras. But since it will be available on Video on Demand, who cares? It meanders a bit, tells a little too much sometimes. But basically this is Pete Davidson’s life, you’re going to get it once, so let’s get it right. I really like this movie so much, even with its flaws. It’s a celebration of pathos.
Pete plays Scott, as I said, 24 years old, living at home in Staten Island with his mom, Margie, played to perfection by Marisa Tomei. This is an Oscar performance, my friends. This is Marisa Tomei gathering up her own life and experiences and she is absolutely lovely. If you want compare to her someone, think Gena Rowlands. This is not “Working Girl” Staten Island, there are no caricatures. It’s very organic. Tomei’s mom is widowed, her firefighter husband died when Scott was 7, and his sister was 1. She’s a nurse, she has two jobs, and Scott has failed to launch. He’s a wannabe tattoo artist who’s stoned all the time and may never leave home.
That’s the set up. From there you could order from menus you’ve seen before. She’ll find love, he’ll struggle with coming of age really late. Lessons will be learned and there will be some bumps along the road to happy endings. So why does it work? Because the writers drilled down into the characters. Because Apatow’s languid pace works as a perfect counterpoint to Davidson’s well known ADD personality. Because it’s never too glib. And because down deep, everyone likes each other, so their frailties are accepted and acceptable.
In that regard I especially like Pete’s relationships with his sister (Maude Apatow) and his erstwhile girlfriend (Bel Powley, she’ll knock you out). This script is full of rich secondary and tertiary characters, too, and their little story arcs. Moises Arias is childhood pal with a surprise twist of a story. Steve Buscemi turns up as fills out the main story as a needed authority. I loved Bill Burr as Margie’s suitor, and Pamela Adlon is a surprise gift.
A lot of this could have been cut for a theatrical release. The movie would have been as good. But we’ve got the director’s cut here, and I wouldn’t give any of it back. I can’t believe we have this and the Spike Lee movie in the same weekend, readily available to everyone. Today is my birthday (yes) and I consider them each gifts. This is my thank you note.