With his hands on the steering wheel driving down the highway, Scott (Pete Davidson) closes his eyes, ready to crash into what lies ahead and explode into flames. This is the opening of Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island, a quasi-comedy that is less interested in finding the funniest punchline for every situation and more curious about the search for the scattered, missing pieces of one’s soul. It’s the director’s most emotionally attuned and narrowly focused work, a film in which our attention is not pulled along by heavy dramatic shifts or distracted by a mountain of subplots, but rather how trauma can form a life of complacency and it’s only slivers of progress that hint at a more promising future.

This is still an Apatow movie, however, so the general vibe of his sixth feature is still relatively upbeat and humor-focused, populating this insular world of New York City’s oft-forgotten borough with a cadre of memorable characters. Leading the pack is the king of Staten Island himself, a twenty-four-year-old in a state of suspended animation, passing his days dealing drugs to local neighbors and utilizing his friends for his amateur tattoo art experimentations. With his father passing away fighting a fire when Scott was only seven, he’s is now parented solely by his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei), who hasn’t been in a relationship these past 17 years. She’s also conflicted with moving forward in life and after they send Scott’s sister Claire (Maude Apatow) off to college, it’s only mother and son remaining at the house. That is, until Ray (Bill Burr), another local firefighter, begins a relationship with Margie and pushes for Scott to start his own path in life. 

A point of division in real-life has been the comedy of Pete Davidson, and whether one is fond of his mix of difficult, confessional truths and lighter stoner comedy, all conveyed with a rather genial vibe. As he’s in virtually every scene of the 136-minute movie, it may be difficult to convince someone to watch who has never appreciated the comedian, but The King of Staten Island is not simply an autobiographical story in narrative form. Apatow could have easily gone the more structurally safe, crowd-pleasing route, detailing the rise of Davidson’s character from his home borough to making it big in New York City, but instead we’re planted in Staten Island through 99% of the film, and it’s not the world of comedy that is his main goal, but rather dreams of opening his own peculiar concept of a tattoo restaurant. These relatively low dramatic stakes and attentiveness to explore the inner journey of our lead feels all the more refreshing and honest in today’s ever-dwindling studio comedy landscape made of high-concept cheap laughs.

Clearly drawing from the SNL star’s life, the tragic passing of his father (Davidson’s own dad died while responding to the 9/11 attacks, but the reason for his death here is changed) leads to the ripple effects of mental instability that such a traumatic event can cause. As in Davidson’s real life, there’s also the affliction of Crohn’s disease and what day-to-day existence is like living in your mom’s basement. Most of these themes are handled with both care and comedy, yet when it comes to the former, not entirely with great detail. Davidson is vocal about mental health issues and suicidal thoughts in his comedy, but the film never gets as harrowing as its opening scene. While we feel for his character in the minor ups and downs captured here, the complexity of his pain gets diluted as the script shifts the focus towards external relationships in his world. Contrary to some of Apatow’s more scattered films, however, this shift does have its own rewards.

Handled beautifully is the three-way vying for different forms of connection and affection between Scott, his mother Margie, and her new boyfriend Ray. As Margie and Ray’s relationship deepens, Scott gets pushed to the side and Apatow flips the script on how one may expect this journey to go, marking some of the best work of the director’s career, as well as that of Tomei and Burr. They are both sublime in navigating this tricky terrain of a loving but exhausted mother and a potentially untrustworthy boyfriend, respectively. Handled with less precision is Scott’s relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley), a childhood friend that is now relegated to someone he just hooks up with but tells no one of their relationship–out of fear of both commitment and his own self-worth. Popping up when it’s narratively convenient, the British actress perfectly nails the Staten Island accent and look, but one wishes her character was more fully-formed, particularly considering how heavily she figures into the film’s final moments.

While the director’s recent films have felt either too self-indulgent (This Is 40) or erratic (Trainwreck), he finds an endearing groove throughout The King of Staten Island with a mood reminiscent of a low-stakes character study from the ‘70s or ‘80s. Shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit with the laidback charm of an Altman-esque hangout movie, it’s the moments where Scott and his weed-smoking crew (including Moisés Arias, Lou Wilson, and Davidson’s real-life best friend Ricky Velez) that ring the most authentic, especially as it relates to the title. Both the characters’ love for their hometown and the desire to see it improve is clear as well, making the film as much an ode to a location as it is to Davidson’s own journey. Used for surprising emotional catharsis in the film is Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit Of Happiness,” and it’s a song in which both the title and the lyrics lay a roadmap for the journey. Scott is continually doing whatever is in his best interest, even when the end goal is hazy, teetering close to danger and a life of pain. Apatow keenly captures this state of arrested development with enough empathy that, by the credits, those with previously no interest in the comedian’s story may now count themself among his fans.

The King of Staten Island arrives digitally on Friday, June 12.

Grade: B

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