22 Jul 2020

Movie review: The King of Staten Island

From At The Movies, 7:02 pm on 22 July 2020

New comedy star Pete Davidson gets strong acting backup in Judd Apatow's The King of Staten Island and the best bits of the film don't involve him, says Simon Morris.

Simon Morris: The American late-night TV series Saturday Night Live was launched in 1975 and has been going strongly - in America - ever since.

I stress the "in America" part because for the rest of the world, mostly, it never played on our TVs. It just existed as a launch-pad for America's movie talent.

From the early days of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd to Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Kristen Wiig and literally scores of others, the stars of Saturday Night Live became the stars of American movies - even if non-Americans didn't know who they were.

All we saw was the sense of entitlement that years on TV give people like new star Pete Davidson.

The precociously young Davidson is huge in the States - and notable for his well-known back-story.

He comes from the blue-collar New York borough of Staten Island, and his father was a fireman who died in 9/11.

The film The King of Staten Island is essentially that narrative, with a twist. It's Pete Davidson's story if he hadn't become a comedy superstar.

Aside from its Saturday Night Live pedigree, The King of Staten Island comes from another famous comedy stable - the R-rated films of Judd Apatow.

Having launched the film careers of Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer, James Franco and many others, Apatow is a good, and obvious, fit with Pete Davidson.

It's edgy, it's coarse, it's very white urban, and like so many previous Apatow productions, it features a lead character who's very hard to like at the start.

Scott is a dope-smoking slacker, sponging off his mother and kid sister. He's obsessed by his late father in a way he obviously thinks is sort of endearing.

He keeps practising on his equally unfocussed friends - another staple in Apatow films - despite displaying only minimal talent at it.

When even Scott's crew refuse to take any more tattooing, he looks outside the group. He finds a 10-year-old and offers to tattoo him.

The kid goes along with it for about half a minute then bails. Next thing you know the kid's father comes calling on Scott's mum.

If you're not already a fan of Pete Davidson - I'd certainly never heard of him - you might be seduced by some of the other actors.

I've always liked Marisa Tomei ever since My Cousin Vinny, and as Ray the fireman, the irascible comedian Bill Burr is easy to like too. Easier to like than Scott, certainly.

To Scott's dismay, his Mum starts to have a life that isn't entirely centred on him.

Scott even finds himself being expected to do a few chores - including babysitting duties.

Actually, the best things about The King of Staten Island are all the bits that aren't Pete Davidson. The two kids are adorable, and the crew at Ray's firehouse are led by the always-welcome Steve Buscemi, who it turns out used to be a fireman himself. Who knew?

But the most endearing people in this rather blokey film are way over to the side. There's Judd Apatow's daughter Maude, who plays that very Apatow character, the kid sister who's far more grown-up than the so-called hero.

And as Scott's long-suffering girlfriend there's Bel Powley, who made an impact playing the young Princess Margaret in A Royal Night Out.

Vanessa Kirby, Helena Bonham Carter… What is it about the Queen's petulant sister that's such a gift part for talented British actresses?

I could have used a lot more of Bel Powley and, frankly, rather less of Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island, but of course I'm not from around there.

And to be fair, it does all come right in the end. Even if, as so often in this sort of movie, there's an awful lot of movie before the end.

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