Published on June 15th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The King of Staten Island
Pete Davidson is the subject of Judd Apatow’s latest project. He doesn’t play a comedian, but he does play a confusing version of himself to mixed results.
Has Pete Davidson ever played anything other than Pete Davidson? It’s an interesting situation for a comedian/actor when all your schtick adds up to is a slightly more irreverent version of yourself. The question that I had while watching The King of Staten Island was, “Who is Pete Davidson, really? Is he saying that this is him, that this movie is his story with some dramatic liberties thrown in? Or is this the character Pete Davidson has always been playing, but who now just has his own movie? Like Wayne’s World or Pee Wee Herman.
Watching his stand-up, his bits on SNL, interviews, etc. doesn’t really provide an answer. Because as a comedian, you’re always expected to be “on.” You’re always expected to be the funniest version of yourself. In Pete’s case, the funniest thing he can think of is just being Pete Davidson. So he just does that all the time. But when all you do is play the funniest version of yourself, how can you make a down-to-earth autobiographical film about yourself without that precise dialectic of identity being muddled?
This is the problem with King of Staten Island, which is a totally fine and relatively enjoyable movie of its ilk. It fits into the Apatow canon nicely. But it never gets out of the way of its star, and the intertextuality of its central conceit. It draws from Pete’s life in very obvious ways (his fireman-father’s death, his anxiety and depression, his general stoner/slacker attitude, his many terrible tattoos). But something about the quote-unquote “honesty” of this film is suspect. Pete keeps tessellating between playing himself and being himself. And any audience member who is aware of who Pete Davidson is in real life (which is most people to some extent) is just going to see that strange uncanny confluence of the persona and the person. The mask and the face that lies behind it.
This movie asks you to buy into it, to just go with it on the journey of self discovery or whatever. And, by and large, it does a good job of making that journey a smooth one. Apatow is a brilliant director—underrated if you ask me. And it’s not because I think all his movies are masterpieces. But if you watch any Judd Apatow movie, you will always notice how his precise instinct for naturalism and timing, coupled with his nuanced approach to telling very conventional, three-act stories, elevates the material significantly. Even bad and largely unfunny Apatow movies like This is 40 and Trainwreck have a sophistication to the way they carry themselves as they go hop along from one bland moment or gag to another. With KOSI, he elevates the material once again to something that finds a modicum of meaning and inspiration in between sex jokes. He makes it easy and rather fun to plod along with Davidson.
Nevertheless, there is something so confusing and strange about this movie, compared to, say, Trainwreck’s similar comedian meets semi-autobiography sensibility. Amy Schumer’s schtick is a more thoroughly enunciated and in-your-face extrapolation (that doesn’t make it any funnier; just makes it more obvious). As noted earlier, Davidson tows such a fine line between himself and his “act” that it is really hard to tell when one ends and the other begins. Now, there may be an interesting movie in there (maybe they should’ve made his “character” a comedian), but KOSI goes in for a reality-check. Thus, it comes out kind of murky as to what kind of breakthrough it really made. I guess it’s just hard to tell whether “Scott” figured something out that Pete also did. Or whether this semi-autobiographical conceit is phony-baloney, a façade to make it fit within the Apatow formula or to make it easier to write or to make it more relatable or whatever.
Davidson is good in it. He has natural talent and solid timing. He’s good at playing himself. Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei, and Bel Powley round out the cast with funny and lived-in roles. His crew of friends are funny too, if not a bit of a joke machine (that’s the kind of territory where Apatow usually lets it rip). The film populates itself with enough varied and engaging storylines that they intertwine effectively without losing momentum. There’s a few standout moments and some scenes that manage to hit on an emotional level. But on the whole, the general arc is very easy to telegraph. Nothing truly surprising or outlandishly daring on a comedic level to see here.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But when you can’t tell where the movie-Pete ends and the real-Pete begins, it kind of warps the gravitas on display into something that never fully pulled me in.
Check out the trailer below. The film is now available On Demand.