Pete Davidson, the comedian-actor from SNL, digs deep to provide a tale loosely based on his life. The King of Staten Island is a comedy-drama co-written by Davidson and is Judd Apatow’s first feature since 2015’s Trainwreck. It follows Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old who lives with his widowed mother Margie (played by Marisa Tomei) and has no idea what he wants to do with his life. Complicating things is his mental state – Scott’s firefighter dad died on the job when Scott was seven and he hasn’t completely gotten over it. But when Margie begins dating again Scott is forced to make some unwelcome changes.

King co-stars Bill Burr (who plays Margie’s new boyfriend Ray), Bel Powley as Kelsey (Scott’s friend with benefits), Maude Apatow (as Scott’s sister Claire), Steve Buscemi, Pamela Adlon, Ricky Velez, Moises Arias and Lou Wilson. Apatow also produced with Barry Mendel while the remaining writing team consists of Apatow and Dave Sirus. King uses Apatow’s now trademark style of blending comedy within a touching drama and it, again, works. The biggest roadblock to overcome is Davidson – does he have the chops to convincingly play a leading man, or will he crash and burn as he’s done on SNL.

That answer is complicated. Scott’s evolution from lost boy to somewhat mature man is deliberate and methodical, so early on Davidson and Apatow show Scott at his worst. He’s a heavy pot smoker; his friends Oscar (Velez), Igor (Arias) and Richie (Wilson) are low-level drug dealers; Scott willingly tries to tattoo a 9-year-old; and he’s an accomplice to his friends’ robbery attempt (this is likely where Staten Island residents may exclaim, “Hey, it’s Shaolin Island!” #shamelesswutangreference).

For a myriad of reasons, Scott is at odds with Ray - Ray being a firefighter (a painful reminder of Scott’s dad) being a big one. Scott also battles A.D.D. and Crohn’s – all of it leaves him nothing short of a mess.

With King going down this path it’s easy to dislike Scott, but the sentiment is open for change because he’s a good kid at heart.

Scott’s personality type (an angry and confused man with heart) is what saves King from mediocrity, although much of Scott character is derived from Adam Sandler’s early film M.O.

But let’s also look at Scott’s good side. He’s a 24-year-old who often thinks and acts like a child (that’s why the aspiring tattoo artist had no problem inking a kid). Then, as Margie and Ray become closer, Ray makes Scott walk his kids to school. It’s certainly a weird request, exacerbated by the fact that kids with adults who aren’t their parents is suspicious. But Scott gets along quickly with Harold (Luke David Blumm) and Kelly (Alexis Rae Forlenza) and takes a genuine interest in them (something Ray seems to have issues handling). Then as he interacts with Ray and his firefighter buddies, Scott’s healing process begins. A man who was once a bum is soon becoming the king… of Staten Island.

With Davidson providing a surprisingly complex performance, the rest of the cast is fine, particularly Burr. Burr began as a stand-up comedian but has worked as a character actor for years. His best known performance was on Breaking Bad as Patrick Kuby and his years of subtle but solid work has allowed him to break out. Burr is more than solid – he’s exceptional and is King’s backbone.

Tomei is excellent but underused, while Powley successfully pulls off a New York accent (complete with body language and mannerisms) despite being a London, England native.

The King of Staten Island is a simple story that’s layered enough to challenge audiences emotionally. Regardless of your feelings for Davidson coming in, he provides an honest performance the likes of which we haven’t seen from him. Apatow still can’t solve his problem with long running times (there are portions that drag) but most of the 136 minutes are necessary in regards to Scott’s story arc. Regardless, this is Apatow’s best work since 2007’s Knocked Up and definitely worth a look.

3.5 stars out of 5

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