The King of Staten Island is one of the best and most authentic films of 2020. While some might attribute this to the narrative being 75% based on Pete Davidson’s own life, Judd Apatow’s latest release perfectly captures the devastating and crippling effects that suddenly losing a parent has on a family. No one is immune to the impact of this life-changing event. Davidson lost his father during the attacks on September 11th. My dad died during what was supposed to be an outpatient procedure. The King of Staten Island reflects the awkwardness, numbness, and the prolonged healing a family undergoes. Often the process is neverending. No one ever gets over it, and we are forced to navigate a new normal.
The King of Staten Island is loosely auto-biographical based on Davidson’s own experiences. In the film, he plays Scott, a deadbeat 24-year old who lives with his mother (Oscar winner Marisa Tomei) and his younger, more academic sister Claire (played by Maude Apatow). Margie (Tomei) lost her firefighter husband tragically when a roof collapsed on him but always painted a bright picture of who Scott’s father was to him. Over the years, Scott retreated into his world of drugs and partying. He fancies himself a tattoo artist, practicing on his equally deadbeat friends, and has hopes of opening a ‘tattoo restaurant,’ an idea too wild to work, keeping it always out of reach and never a realistic goal. It’s a safe and consistent lifestyle he’s into because nothing ever changes. In many ways, Davidson’s character is in quicksand, which is a feeling that is way too familiar from that period after my dad died. Claire seemingly has stepped up and provided some companionship over the last seventeen years since her father died. This felt all too true because my sister did the same thing for my mother. The King of Staten Island perfectly reflects how families attempt to cope after the unthinkable happens.
Writer/director Judd Apatow, Dave Sirius, and Davidson’s superbly crafted screenplay deftly weaves humor and heart, which offset some of the more sentimental moments of the film. Watching Margie, rusty after not having been on a date in 17 years, Tomei plays this delicate trepidation exactly right, including a cringe-worthy the scene of her flirting with firefighter Ray (Bill Burr). He’s interested in her and has no idea how to communicate it, and the two navigate a first date like teenagers. There’s certainly a parallel in how Ray talks to his mother and the way Scott talks with his sometimes-girlfriend/sometimes FWB Kelsey (an excellent Bel Powley, channeling a bit of Tomei in My Cousin Vinny). Part of the film’s charm is how nothing is ever simple. Ray and Scott have to navigate painful truths in order to move forward with their lives, part of which is finding common ground.
Apatow, Sirius, and Davidson wrote some great explosive moments in the film as well. Scott is having a tough time dealing with his mom dating Ray and lets his mother have it, even though he’s completely irrational about it. Margie wants to attempt to move forward, redecorating her living room and removing her fallen husband’s shrine, and Scott views it as a betrayal. When his outburst doesn’t work, he tries to sabotage her relationship with Ray by getting dirt from his ex-wife (fantastic cameo by Better Things‘ Pamela Adlon. Nothing he tries works and only makes things worse. Scott was angry with life. It took a long time for my anger to subside until all that’s left was the pain. A second chance from Ray gives Scott not only the chance to prove himself but to find himself, doing grunt work at the fire station. Steve Buscemi shines in a small and pivotal role here, playing a firefighter who knew Steve’s father and is able to offer an entirely new side of the man he knew.
Davidson gives an award-worthy performance that is heartfelt and, at times, heartbreaking, in a familiar Peter Pan story but one in which he manages to navigate the most emotionally draining moments with the same ease he would delivering a hilarious one-liner. Tomei and Burr are equally dynamite in the film. This is the best film Judd Apatow has ever written and directed.
In a year with delays and cancellations, The King of Staten Island is a refreshing surprise. Most pundits didn’t have this film on their radar in January, but expect Apatow’s film to stick around well into award season.
The King of Staten Island will be available On Demand beginning Friday, June 12.