Grief has been a big subject lately, from the unprecedented number of deaths from a global pandemic, to the murders of unarmed black men at the hands of police, to a much less significant but still impactful second season of Ricky Gervais’s Netflix series, After Life, which is about a man coping with losing his wife to cancer.
It would seem to be the perfect time for a new movie that speaks about grief in yet a different way. The new film from writer/director Judd Apatow, The King of Staten Island, stars comedian Pete Davidson in a semi-autobiographical film about a twenty-six year old man in a perpetual state of arrested adolescence since the death of his firefighter father when he was a child. There’s really nothing more to the film than that, as we watch Scott (Davidson) meander through his days, smoking weed, hanging out with his friends, and randomly “practicing” his tattoo skills on anyone willing. Davidson’s comedic style, which has been honed by his six seasons on Saturday Night Live, can easily be described as relaxed, lazy even. His low-energy delivery and hangdog physical appearance lend themselves perfectly to play a man who has never grown up and, more important of all, doesn’t want to. Why would he, when he is coddled by his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) who lets him live with her, accepting his aimlessness. The deep-seated guilt and residual grief on her part are fascinating to see in Tomei’s performance, as she is desperate to kick her son out and force him to take responsibility for his own life, but his father’s death has left both mother and son in a perpetual state of stasis, their buried sorrow and fear feeding off their co-dependence. They are both caught in a vicious cycle of denial and grief so deep that neither of them even knows how to move. But when a chance encounter brings Ray (Bill Burr) into their lives, Margie and Scott’s lives finally find a way to get un-stuck, but not without great effort and great emotional upheaval along the way.
The film’s deep and moving themes revolving guilt and grief sometimes get lost in the meandering and unappealing performance from Davidson, whose style is truly a matter of taste. But there is definite heart here, and that can be felt throughout the screenplay, written with a light touch by Apatow, Davidson and Dave Sirus, and in every performance, particularly from Tomei, Burr and a small but effective performance from Steve Buscemi.
The real heart of this film, however, is in knowing the backstory of the movie. Davidson lost his real firefighter father during the attacks of September 11, when he was just 7. At first I found it odd that the film changed this fact, but then understood the importance on focusing on the loss, not how it happened. In addition, Buscemi is himself a former NY firefighter, with a much-publicized love for his old occupation and the heroes who still face danger every day. You can feel the sincerity here, all around, and it makes the story a much more emotional one when it lands.
Unfortunately, I just couldn’t warm to Davidson’s performance. There is a level of annoyance that is designed, just as in Apatow’s most recent “lost-soul-who-turns-their-life-around” movie, which was Trainwreck. In that film, the character played by Amy Schumer was equally offensive at the beginning, but found a way to transform and become loveable. Neither Schumer nor Davidson are great actors, but Schumer was able to hit some real notes of authenticity, whereas I felt that Davidson is just incapable of finding levels to his performance, so what you see in scene one is basically the same that you get in the last. For a film where transformation is the whole point, the tedium that is baked in is frustrating.
But still, The King of Staten Island manages to be enjoyable in spite of Davidson, thanks to a breezy screenplay and some really charming performances.