The King of Staten Island is two hours and 17 minutes long. That is an outrageous running time for most movies. It is an egregious running time for a coming-of-adulthood movie about a Saturday Night Live man-child. The only justification is: It takes that long to finally like Pete Davidson.
The King of Staten Island is not a bad movie. It is an often boring movie (137 minutes!!!), but it’s also an occasionally profound and a consistently—if quietly—humorous one. It is a movie about Pete Davidson, both loosely and explicitly, in that the 26-year-old comedian-actor co-wrote the script based on his life and it is about how a person like Pete Davidson tries everyone’s patience. Still, you like him anyway. At least that’s what the movie wants you to do.
There’s an unfair generalization about movies from director-producer Judd Apatow, who directed and produced this, and their veneration of crude, overgrown boys. The breadth and significance of his output contradicts the reductiveness with which his critics tend to talk to about his work. That said, The King of Staten Island squarely fits in that lane, almost as if by formula.
A deadbeat white boy with a caustically charming sense of humor meanders through various stages of arrested development, usually while stoned, reliant on the saintly patience of the women in his life. First, the haplessness is amusing, then it goes a step too far and is toxic, and finally there is a come-to-Jesus moment and he becomes the person everyone knew he could be all along.
The saving grace is always the central character’s good intentions and inherent sweetness, no matter the cancer he may be in the lives of those around him. “Blast that devil on his shoulder, or he’d be such a great guy!” The King of Staten Island explores poignant ideas about grief, modern masculinity, and mental illness—to its extreme credit, in frank, if fleeting ways, that you rarely see in studio comedies like this. But at its crux, both dramaturgically and conceptually, is a simpler thesis: Don’t you just like Pete Davidson?
The young breakout star of Saturday Night Live has, since his debut on the sketch show six years ago, has been a cultural fascination as much as he’s been a talent.
There was his youth. He was the first cast member born in the 1990s and, at 20, one of its youngest performers ever. It quickly became a news item after his hiring that his father was a firefighter who died on 9/11. In interviews, Davidson would talk about how the trauma of that loss affected his entire life. That candor and emotion surprised and touched people, as did the honesty with which he spoke about his struggles with mental illness and depression, and the adorableness of his relationship with his mother, whom he bought a home for and lived with after hitting it big.
SNL is historically a showcase for sketch performers, but Davidson made a name for himself on the series for playing himself.
He’d sporadically show up in sketches, decreasingly so in recent seasons, but was a reliable highlight of any episode in which he’d appear at the “Weekend Update” to deliver a monologue, usually framed around male millennial culture. He’d snicker his way through bits about smoking weed and masturbation, which would hit with a younger audience that found it relatable. Then, as his own life became less relatable—getting engaged to Ariana Grande, dating Kate Beckinsale—his set would dwell on the peculiarities of that.
He telegraphed both a vulnerability and a cockiness that appealed to certain fans, and which seemed to have spoken to the various comedy statesmen who embraced mentorship roles with him, including Lorne Michaels, John Mulaney, and now Apatow. But from the outside there was also some confusion, bordering on a skepticism.
He visibly didn’t contribute much to SNL and often disappeared from some episodes entirely. He had a casual, sometimes dismissive attitude about his success. There were petulant outbursts. His awkward handsomeness was certainly appealing, but the many baffled by his track record of dating women like Beckinsale or Grande settled on the phenomenon of “Big Dick Energy” as the explanation.
In other words, as Davidson became more of a pop-culture personality, but without the output to back it up, people started to wonder, “What is the deal with that guy?” The King of Staten Island is ostensibly the answer.
In the film, he plays Scott, an unemployed stoner who lives at home with his mother (Marisa Tomei) in Staten Island. He carries deep emotional wounds from losing his father, a firefighter, when he was seven, a trauma that earned him a free pass to live as a burnout. His sister (Maude Apatow) moving out to go to school wakes his mother out of her stasis, and she decides now is the time to shake Scott awake, too.
The necessity of being a man in his mid-twenties mooching off his mother isn’t enough to do it. But when she starts dating a firefighter (Bill Burr), he’s so affronted that she would date another serviceman after his dad’s death that he finally discovers a purpose. He tries to sabotage the relationship, and in doing so alienates the two people—his mother and, with her, his sister—that have cared for him.
If you’ve seen the trailer for The King of Staten Island, you know what the movie is. There aren’t any surprising beats or layers of nuance outside what the trailer forecasts.
It’s a movie that glorifies and centers the kind of personality that is the whole Pete Davidson thing. That’s not a critique, per se, because it is what the film is, and it does that well. He’s an endearing man-child in the lineage of the Adam Sandlers and the Seth Rogens, and boasts a self-awareness about his own mental issues and stunted maturation that makes him the protagonist and not a sociopath.
Scott is a pain in the ass, but he’s got a heart of gold. Sure, the film does a great job of making Scott seem irritating, but it’s through a gaze that’s also supposed to make those annoyances charming. He always wins you over, be it through a goofy smile, a clever joke, some self-deprecation, or just through his sheer patheticness.
But getting on board with him means getting on board with the waiting game. When will he finally confront his demons, discover the potential inside himself, and be the man you know he can be? It’s that wait that’s exhausting. It’s that wait that puts so much on the shoulders of Pete Davidson’s schtick. Do you want to spend that much time with him?
The film is so compassionate towards him—relentlessly so, over the course of that 137 minutes—that you do. It helps that Davidson is a better actor than one might expect. His frenzied, juvenile rants score the expected laughs, but it’s his tossed-off one-liners, almost mumbled to the point of unintelligibility, that bring his twisted sense of humor into sharper focus.
When Scott’s sister begs him not to wear cargo shorts to her graduation party because he looks like he’s going to sell crack under the bridge, he protests, “I know the guy who sells crack under the bridge and he looks awesome.” It’s funny! And some of the best writing happens in the film’s more tender moments, the ones more interested in letting you learn who this character is and how he views himself.
A post-coital exchange early in the film with the girl (Bel Powley) he is secretly having sex with deftly tackles anti-depressants, ejaculation, and self-harm in a shockingly observant and slyly humorous way. A tease: “I don’t put on a Broadway show like you do. I’m more quiet. I’m more like Charlie Chaplin when I cum.”
In the same way that there’s no real surprise where the narrative ends up going, maybe it’s predictable how you’ll end up feeling about it and, as such, about Davidson. Of course you’ll end up liking him. And that in itself is exasperating.