SYNOPSIS: Scott (Davidson) has been a case of arrested development ever since his firefighter father died when he was seven. He’s now reached his mid-20s having achieved little, chasing a dream of becoming a tattoo artist that seems far out of reach. As his ambitious younger sister (Maude Apatow, HBO’s Euphoria) heads off to college, Scott is still living with his exhausted ER nurse mother (Oscar® winner Marisa Tomei) and spends his days smoking weed, hanging with the guys—Oscar (Ricky Velez, Master of None), Igor (Moises Arias, Five Feet Apart) and Richie (Lou Wilson, TV’s The Guest Book)—and secretly hooking up with his childhood friend Kelsey (Bel Powley, Apple TV+’s The Morning Show). But when his mother starts dating a loudmouth firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr, Netflix’s F Is for Family), it sets off a chain of events that will force Scott to grapple with his grief and take his first tentative steps toward moving forward in life.
If you’re familiar with writer-director Judd Apatow, you’re probably expecting his latest to be yet another of his vulgar but sweet male coming-of-age sagas, not unlike say ‘The 40-Year Old Virgin’, ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Funny People’. At least in the first hour, seeing the 24-year-old wannabe tattoo artist Scott Carlin drift through life suggests that ‘The King of Staten Island’ is very much similar to Apatow’s character oeuvre; and yet, there are signs that it is intended to be something more, such as how Scott deliberately closes his eyes while behind the wheel of a car.
Sure enough, you’ll discover a much more grim and sobering portrait of a young adult struggling to come to terms with the death of his firefighter father, who was killed in the line of duty when Scott was just a boy. That singular event continues to haunt his attitude towards life, whether committing to a budding relationship with his pal Kelsey (Bel Powley), or his neglect for his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and sister Claire (Maude Apatow), or even how he refuses to take charge of his life with any sense of direction or purpose.
Unfortunately – or in fact, fortunately for Scott – he is forced to confront his realities when he makes a poor choice to tattoo a nine-year-old kid he meets while hanging out at the beach, prompting the kid’s dad Ray (Bill Burr) to show up at his doorstep demanding an apology. That chance encounter sparks a relationship between Margie and Ray, the latter of whom happens to be a firefighter too. Not surprisingly, Scott reacts with a mix of anger, disbelief and hurt, but a series of ensuing developments will lead him to come to terms with his past and present.
Consider that fair warning for those who expect the sort of gross-out humour from Apatow’s earlier movies – compared to them, the tone here is a lot more subdued, especially as Scott turns vindictive to try to get his mother to break up with Ray. Apatow has always had a knack for melding drama and comedy, and more than before, he demonstrates an ability to do so with utter bittersweet realism. You’ll empathise with Scott all right, as well as the characters around him, as he learns to face his demons and everyone else tries to put things back together.
That it feels so real is no coincidence with the fact that it is loosely based on Davidson’s own story; indeed, the ‘Saturday Night Live’ actor brings his signature brand of shrugged off humour to Scott, injecting him with a distinct personality that is both familiar yet unique. His performance here has no grain of artifice; rather, Davidson digs deep at quite possibly his own insecurities to convey vividly the picture of an individual who remains stuck in life. Davidson may not have the same polish as other veteran Apatow actors like Seth Rogen and Steve Carell, but he more than makes up for it with a stripped-down and honest portrayal.
Thankfully then, Apatow gives his lead star plenty of room to shine with a generous two-and-a-quarter hour movie that moves along at its own measured and confident pace. Again, those looking for ‘The Hangover’-type shenanigans will likely be disappointed, for there are few punchy one-liners or trailer-ready set-pieces; nonetheless, there is method in Apatow’s seemingly off-the-cuff style, and you’ll look back appreciating how each scene (co-written by Apatow, Davidson and ‘SNL’ writer Dave Sirius) is a carefully constructed character-building moment that allows his stars room to explore and improvise.
As much as the story revolves around Scott, it is also made more poignant by the excellent supporting acts. Tomei is lovely as his long-suffering mother, and the scene where she lets loose on both Scott and Ray after their brawl is a perfect example of just how sharp her acting is. Burr, who like Davidson is a stand-up comic, carries the straight-talking Ray with unexpected gravitas. Powley is terrific in the few scenes she has with Davidson, and even veterans like Steve Buscemi as Ray’s fire chief and Pamela Adlon as Ray’s ex-wife shine in smaller but memorable roles.
But what ultimately sets ‘The King of Staten Island’ apart from Apatow’s previous movies is how he manages to juggle laughs and life with such deftness here, fashioning a sweet and tender dramedy which should become an instant breakout movie for Davidson in his first full lead role. More than anything he’s ever done, Apatow’s latest is brutally honest while being funny and winning, and ends up being a moving account of how the best we can do in life is sometimes to not let the circumstances we have no control over dictate how we choose to live our life.
Review by Gabriel Chong