' ' Cinema Romantico: The King of Staten Island

Monday, March 22, 2021

The King of Staten Island

Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) is hanging out with a few people in some dimly lit Staten Island basement, smoking weed, shooting the shit. When the subject of his deceased dad is broached, a woman he doesn’t know innocently and sincerely asks how he died. Scott’s pals protectively close ranks, including his friend with benefits Kelsey (Bel Powley), deeming the question inappropriate. The woman apologizes, but Scott deflects anyway, pledging indifference, though the way in which the air of the room palpably shifts when his dad comes up lets you know his apathy is a front. If Scott is a 24-year old high school dropout, he is not the manboy who refuses to grow up of Judd Apatow movies past so much as an overgrown kid unknowingly still mired in grief. And though “The King of Staten Island” might resemble other Judd Apatow joints in so much as it is a hangout movie heavy on improvisation, rather than going on and on in an effort to uncover just one more punchline, this scene concludes with a burst of emotional truth, as do most of the subsequent scenes. That means despite a 138-minute run time, “The King of Staten Island” never feels long, just searching, Apatow having finally figured out how to utilize his modus operandi to mirror his character’s journey. 

“The King of Staten Island’s” mini prologue, in which Scott falls asleep at the wheel of his car and nearly causes a multi-car pileup, driving away, looking into the rearview mirror and uselessly saying “I’m sorry”, suggests a life of evading consequence. That changes, though, when Scott, a wannabe tattoo artist with no one to tattoo, offers to ink up a 9-year-old. Like many moments, it’s as unsettling as it is comical, Scott just sort of shrugging and going for it, until the kid calls it off a few seconds in, leaving a lone blot on his arm as he runs away. For a moment you think it’s just another bad deed in a life full of them, but the kid’s father, Ray (Bill Burr), shows up at Scott’s house demanding action. It is the scene that essentially sets “The King of Staten Island” in motion, intrinsically suggesting Scott must hold himself accountable for his actions, while Ray, a fireman like Scott’s father, begins dating Scott’s mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei). 

These two men, Scott suspicious of Ray’s motivation and Ray displeased by Scott’s slacker tendencies, are rumbling for a confrontation. But as Scott seeks to sabotage his own mother’s relationship, it takes him on enlightening detours, like unexpectedly being enlisted as daily chaperone of Ray’s kids to school, his arrested adolescence proving useful even as it is gradually overcome. Ray’s occupation, meanwhile, brings Scott’s own trauma out into the open, forcing him to confront it, eventually anyway, challenging Ray and his fireman brethren, like Chief Papa (Steve Buscemi), at a baseball game over their line of work, laying bare what bubbles beneath. 

As Scott, Davidson is less like the gregarious Seth Rogen-ish goofballs of other Apatow films, or even the low-key sad-sack Adam Sandler plays in “Funny People”, than a spastic livewire. When Scott’s sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is leaving for college, she implores that he not hurt himself, though rather than reassure her or even disagree with her assessment, he concurs, claiming if anyone would hurt themselves, it’s him. It’s a frightening moment, evincing why it’s so hard to pick out suicide risks as Davidson’s performance simultaneously suggests that she could take him seriously or roll her eyes. In his scenes with Kelsey, meanwhile, Davidson can come off generally oblivious one moment that she thinks they have something going, in a manner of speaking, and fiendish enough at other moments to convince you he’s just putting her on. 

Though we generally only see the female characters in terms of how they relate to Scott, they also are not just waiting around for him to change, becoming co-agents of it instead, and given life by excellent supporting turns. Powley plays Kelsey as being both fond of and frustrated by Scott. When he recounts giving Ray’s kid an unauthorized tattoo, Kelsey laughs but then suggests tattooing kids isn’t the best idea, which Powley gives the ring not of a scold but someone who like this guy so much she is trying to will him to be better. And while Tomei begins the movie uneasily drawn into herself, transforming a scene about binge watching “Game of Thrones” into an insecure, futile effort of a mom trying to reach her son, Tomei gives strength to her character’s air as she goes along. When Margie finally orders Scott out of the house, it’s not simply tough love to help him but to ease her own burden too, and when he finds her with a friend several scenes later, Tomei’s air, I swear, just feels lighter.

Like most of Apatow’s movies, “The King of Staten Island” ultimately emphasizes the importance of family, though not quite with a similar sentimentality. Claire’s high school graduation party is not at her home but at the home of a friend’s, one who we understand has come to function as something like a second family for her in the absence of her father. As the parents make a toast, a disgruntled Scott mocks it under his breath, though by film’s end he will also have found something of a second family, bunking at the firehouse when he winds up kicked out his mom’s house and on bad terms with Kelsey. This could have been a cheap third-act resolution, a la “Knocked Up” where the main character’s ascension to responsibility is condensed into a convenient montage. But in “The King of Staten Island”, this plot development feels more convincing, by leaning on the firemen, especially Buscemi, who in his quiet but deliberate demeanor embodies a life of experience and wisdom that positively affects his unlikely young charge, and the firehouse, allowing the rift Scott feels from his father’s absence to innately heal.

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