Review: 'The King of Staten Island' a royal misfire

Pete Davidson stars in semi-autobiographical tale that never gets off the ground

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "The King of Staten Island," Pete Davidson plays a heavily tattooed manchild who's stuck in a suspended state of adolescence. He's mourning the loss of his firefighter father years earlier and lives with his mom in Staten Island, New York. 

It's the "SNL" star's story the same way "8 Mile" was Eminem's story; Em played a version of himself who was not really himself but okay, it was himself. We get it, we know what we're watching. 

Moises Arias, Ricky Velez and Pete Davidson in "The King of Staten Island."

Yet director Judd Apatow, who co-wrote "The King of Staten Island" with Davidson and Dave Sirus, is never quite sure what to do with Davidson or how to tell his sort-of story, and the result is an oddly flat look at male bonding, deep psychological scarring and life inside the most looked down upon of New York's five boroughs.   

Davidson plays Scott, a 24-year-old stoner who dresses in vintage hip-hop streetwear (it's only right the Wu-Tang Clan would receive several shout-outs in a Staten Island movie) and dreams of opening a restaurant-slash-tattoo parlor, which isn't a good idea to begin with but sounds even worse given present-world pandemic realities.

The movie opens with Scott, who subsists on a steady diet of anti-depressants, driving down the highway, blasting Kid Cudi and tightly closing his eyes. When he opens them he nearly plows into stopped traffic, ending his life and those of a few others as well, and he swerves out of harm's way just in the nick of time.  

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he says to himself as he collects himself and drives off unharmed. And it's immediately clear that this Apatow tale will offer a different type of experience than his comedies "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" or "Trainwreck," which take place in a decidedly real world context but favor outward laughs over probing examinations of internal anxieties. 

So what exactly is "The King of Staten Island?" Like its star, it's a bit gangling. There are familiar beats with Scott and his group of friends hanging out, getting high, watching movies and goofing on each other, and true to movies like these, Scott has commitment issues with his kind-of girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley), and keeps their relationship a secret.

But those matters — as well as an awkward heist subplot that is of so little consequence it could easily be lifted out of the film without making a ripple in the story — take a backseat to Scott's forced bonding with Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter who starts dating his mother (Marisa Tomei).

When Scott is kicked out of his house he goes to live with Ray at the firehouse, and he finally begins to sort through the feelings of loss and abandonment the death of his father left him with years ago. And at one point there's a cathartic singalong to the Wallflowers' "One Headlight."

There are fragments of several different movies lying around the periphery of "The King of Staten Island," but the story never truly comes together. Davidson, who turned in a similar performance in "Big Time Adolescence" earlier this year (and is frankly a bit old for coming-of-age stories), is consistently dwarfed by the dramatic demands of the role, and the script never manages to dial into the emotional torment of his character's internal struggles. And the laughs that would normally bail out a movie as at odds with itself as this one never arrive. 

Within the scattered narrative, it's Powley's Kelsey who comes out the winner, and the most realized character in the film.

Kelsey has a goal to get a job working for the city of Staten Island so she can shine a light on the positives of the area for all to see, and the Brit's performance is so grounded and rooted she could pass for a native of the Island. You feel her struggle and applaud her drive, and wind up rooting for her over anyone else. She's the queen of this world, it's the movie that's focused on the wrong member of the kingdom.

'The King of Staten Island'


Rated R: for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images

Running time: 136 minutes