Pete Davidson

In "The King of Staten Island," Davidson has the opportunity to show off his talent as a writer, producer and actor.

“We’ll do some 9/11 jokes then we’ll get the fuck out of here.” 

That’s how Pete Davidson introduced the final 10 minutes of his most recent stand up special, released to Netflix earlier in 2020. Davidson’s father was a New York City firefighter who passed away on 9/11, and the remainder of his special is spent explaining his attempts to process his own trauma.

The special is equal parts funny, uncomfortable, dark, heart-wrenching and personal, serving as an encapsulation of what makes Davidson such an interesting figure. Davidson is a rare example of a celebrity whose struggles, whether they be with his mental health, drug addiction or relationships, are public and embedded in his work to the point of familiarity. 

But with his status as a recognizable public figure, Davidson has never been able to find the proper vessel for his skills. Now, with “The King of Staten Island,” Davidson has the opportunity to show off his talent as a writer, producer and actor, fully delivering in every capacity. 

“The King of Staten Island” follows Scott Carlin (Davidson), a struggling tattoo artist whose firefighter father passed away during his childhood. When Scott’s mother, Margie (Marissa Tomei), begins dating another firefighter (Bill Burr), Scott has to reckon with his father’s past and search for a new direction in life.

Directed by Judd Apatow, the film is a clear meditation on Davidson’s life and his array of personal hardships. Behind a brilliant ensemble cast and Apatow’s consistent, professional style, “The King of Staten Island” succeeds as a stoner comedy, a coming of age story, a deeply emotional drama and a piece of celebrity autobiography.

As Scott, Davidson shines by relying on his own personality and charisma. While he may be unable to transform himself as an actor, Davidson is clearly a star, able to grab an audience’s attention and convey complex emotions in a compelling way. In his scenes, Davidson’s ability is on full display as he maintains undeniable chemistry with every other actor in the film, amplifying their performances and providing a kind of chaotic energy that drives the movie through its 137-minute runtime.

Assisting Davidson is Apatow, whose status as the premier comedy director-producer of the last 20 years lends the project an instant amount of competency. Apatow’s greatest asset as a creator has always been his ability to identify talent, and with “The King of Staten Island,” he’s once again brought together a cast of remarkable performers.

This includes Tomei, whose incredible performance as a nurse and single mother attempting to motivate her son takes the movie to another level. While Apatow’s style occasionally leads to a lack of tension or cohesion, Tomei’s presence grounds the film, providing a sense of truth and despair to each of her scenes.

Often beside Tomei, Burr also succeeds, adding a touch of sincerity and emotion to his rugged, masculine public persona. Burr manages to walk a line between bombastic anger and fatherly energy, amounting to a character who’s sympathetic enough to root for but complicated enough to doubt.

Rounding out the cast, Steve Buscemi delivers an absolutely outstanding performance as Papa, an aging firefighter who served alongside Scott’s father. With a limited amount of screentime, Buscemi provides the soul of the movie, at one point delivering a monologue about Scott’s father’s antics and the idea of heroism that manages to fluctuate from comic fun to devastating regret with a sense of ease.

Apatow’s more recent films were preoccupied with this concept of balancing comedy and drama, occasionally leading to middling movies like “Funny People” or “This is 40.” After taking five years off from directing a scripted film, “The King of Staten Island” shows Apatow at his best, conceding enough creative control to Davidson to give the film an added level of excitement and energy.

But Apatow may also be adding to the autobiographical nature of the film by casting his daughter, Maude, as Scott’s sister and illustrating a parent who struggles to deal with their child going to college. When Apatow and Davidson stick to this personal nature, the film soars, but on occasion, “The King of Staten Island” can fall into the traps of a conventional study comedy, particularly by adding a possibly unnecessary love interest to the story. While Davidson and Bel Powley have chemistry, the movie’s already complete with enough interesting ideas that their scenes together stop the story’s momentum.

The most interesting question about the film now that “The King of Staten Island” is released is what form Davidson’s future career will take. Entering a rather slim landscape for studio comedies, Davidson’s next decisions will likely depend on his own personal struggles and his limitations as a performer. Davidson may not be a scene-stealing presence like Will Ferrell, but he could perhaps become a millennial version of his idol, Adam Sandler. 

With similar strengths and weaknesses, Sandler serves as a template for Davidson, as both explore the inner turmoil of immature man-children while holding an audience’s attention. What Davidson will do now is anyone’s guess, but if “The King of Staten Island” is any indication, his future appears to be bright.

Contact Chris Carr at carrtc@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.