Review: Davidson steps up in ‘The King of Staten Island’

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Pete Davidson in "The King of Staten Island," directed by Judd Apatow. 

Editor’s note: With movie theaters limited because of the coronavirus pandemic, Micheal Compton’s reviews will focus on films available for streaming or on demand.

From “The 40 Year Old Virgin” to “Knocked Up” to “Funny People” and “Trainwreck,” writer/director Judd Apatow has shown he is very capable of creating strong adult comedies.

But his latest film, “The King of Staten Island,” may be his best yet with Apatow tapping into the enormous talents of “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson to create an entertaining comedy that is also full of raw honest emotion.

Davidson stars in “Staten Island” as Scott, a mid-20s slacker who is content with hanging out and getting high with his friends while still living with his mom, Maggie (Marisa Tomei), who was widowed when Scott’s firefighter dad was killed in action 17 years ago.

When Scott’s sister Claire (Maude Apatow) heads off to college, he becomes even more entrenched in staying at home, hanging with friends and continuing an on-again, off-again relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley).

But Scott’s ideal world comes crashing down when Claire begins to date a firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr), forcing Scott to begin to plan on how to leave the nest while also finally coming to terms with his father’s death.

“Staten Island” draws from Davidson’s own backstory – his father was a firefighter who was killed on 9/11 – in a way that makes the film seem almost therapeutic for the comedian.

What Apatow has really done here, though, is used Davidson’s own experiences – Apatow co-wrote the film with Davidson and SNL writer Dave Sirus – to create something fresh and original. It’s funny and poignant with some of the best writing of any film in 2020 to date.

Apatow completely immerses you in Scott’s world, allowing the audience to get to know everyone in the neighborhood. Apatow is also smart enough to slow things down – with scenes that really flesh out Maggie and Ray’s relationship (when in most films these scenes would just get glossed over).

Tomei and Burr are just the tip of the iceberg in a supporting cast that is outstanding. Powley brings a spunk that is needed for Scott’s love interest, while scenes with Scott’s friends (Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson and Moises Arias) provide some of the film’s funniest moments. The film also has strong work from Steve Buscemi as a fellow firefighter who takes Scott under his wing.

It all comes back to Davidson, who delivers a performance full of emotional depth that I wasn’t expecting. You could argue he is essentially playing himself, but Davidson shows the dramatic range necessary to make this all come together in the final act.

Davidson proves he is up to the challenge, delivering a star-making performance that makes “King of Staten Island” one of the best films of 2020.

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