Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) is a 24-year-old resident of Staten Island who lives at home with his mother (Marisa Tomei); is still not over his deceased father; suffers from ADD, depression, and Crohns disease; spends his days smoking weed, although it no longer gets him high; and finds it difficult to come to terms with his mother’s new boyfriend (Bill Burr), while also being emotionally incapable of holding a meaningful romantic relationship of his own. His highest aspiration in life is to open a tattoo parlor/restaurant.
The King of Staten Island finds its focus in the unfocused—the disaffected, emotionally stunted millennial male. Self-destructive tendencies follow Scott as he pulls away emotionally from those who try to get close to him, only to be confused when they pull away in return. This practice, understandably, leads Scott down a few bad roads.
The actual plot that comes from following these roads is spare, culminating in moments of seeming action that are not explicitly compelling (e.g. a felony whose accompanying jokes shatter the stakes). But, as with any Judd Apatow dramedy, this is more of a character study than anything else. The issue therein is that this character to be studied is defined by his lack of mobility, his inaction. He is in a state of arrested adolescence, and the biggest hope for his character arc is that it concludes with the choice to begin his life. This is to say, the film cannot rise above spinning its wheels for roughly 90 minutes before that process finally starts.
At its best, The King of Staten Island arms its comedy as a defense mechanism, allowing Scott to channel nervous comedic energy as a thinly veiled facade that tenuously separates him from his emotional reality. Other times the comedy and the emotional angst fail to mesh. And plenty of throwaway jokes don’t land, such as calling characters “fat Kanye” and “anorexic panda” or the dopey friend who may or may not be getting catfished.
Despite the tonal inconsistencies, most of which function at the script level involving his character, Davidson does a good job in this role. This is logical, given that he co-wrote the role and Apatow has, in recent years, been good about being the backbone to personal character pieces that are the brainchild of comedians. But even compared to a film from earlier this year, Big Time Adolescence, in which Davidson is playing a similar character, his is a standout performance here.
The King of Staten Island survives on its emotional heft, not its comedy or narrative. In moments, the tone and narrative cohere into something that borders on poignant, but often the film is an oscillating pendulum filled with tonal inconstancy.
The King of Staten Island: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)