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Davidson’s ‘Staten Island’ plays well for SNL fans

Dan Webster

My latest movie review was of "The King of Staten Island," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

If you’re a fan of “Saturday Night Live,” you know who Pete Davidson is. He’s the tattooed kid whose characters include a version of his actual self on Weekend Update, and the clueless Chad, who as a concert roadie famously almost makes out with Jennifer Lopez.

Davidson also has been the target of tabloid news articles by being involved in real life with, among others, the actresses Margaret Qualley and Kate Beckinsale and the singer Ariana Grande.

Along with all that, he’s been nominated by a number of commentators as being the next celebrity most likely to self-destruct. That’s because, for all his apparent talent, which earned him the SNL spot at the tender age of 20, he often seems as vulnerable and guileless as a child – no easy traits for someone continually in the public eye.

His apparent frailty might just be perception, though, part of the act that Davidson himself has embraced as a central factor of his standup comedy routine. It’s certainly part of the role he plays in “The King of Staten Island,” the Judd Apatow-directed movie that I streamed through Amazon Prime.

Co-written by Davidson, Apatow and Dave Sirus – the latter-most a former SNL staff writer – “The King of Staten Island” works as a kind of film à clef, in which real life is depicted, as the dictionary says, behind a “façade of fiction.”

So the setting, obviously, is the New York borough of Staten Island. Our protagonist is Scott Carlin (played by Davidson), a 24-year-old high school dropout who lives with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei), who is a nurse, and his college-bound sister (played by director Apatow’s daughter, Maude Apatow). Unable, or unwilling, to hold down a job, Scott mostly hangs out with his friends, shares the occasional bout of lovemaking with his not-actual-girlfriend Kelsey (played by Bel Powley) and dreams of being a tattoo artist – and of, improbably, opening a combination tattoo den-slash-restaurant.

Everything changes when, during one particularly irresponsible moment, he agrees to give a 9-year-old neighbor kid a tattoo, which leads to the kid’s father, Ray (played by comic Bill Burr), coming to Scott’s house and complaining to his mother. This leads to Ray's returning to the house and romancing Margie, a fact that – when he finds out – disgusts Scott, who then does everything he can to disrupt the relationship before it goes any further.

A lot of other stuff happens, too, such as Kelsey’s insistence that she and Scott define their relationship, Scott getting a part-time job at an Italian restaurant and having to literally fight for tips, Scott’s friends getting the stupid idea to rob a pharmacy – which leads to one of the film’s more serious sequences – and with Scott getting up close and personal both with Ray’s kids (including the boy to whom he tried to give a tattoo) and with the crew of a local firehouse.

That last plotline is particularly important to Scott as his own father, once a firefighter himself, had died years before in a hotel blaze.

Much of this mirrors Davidson’s real life. His mother is a school nurse, he grew up in Staten Island, his real-life father was one of the 343 firefighters who died when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. And as Davidson has made clear in various interviews, making “The King of Staten Island” has worked as a kind of therapy for him (in fact, Apatow dedicates the film to Davidson’s father, Scott).

But if that sounds as if the film is in any way a downer, that’s true only if the kind of comedy that Davidson and Apatow present is not to your tastes. Much of the humor feels like something written by Kevin Smith, punctuated by a lot of profanity and SNL-type skit humor designed to evoke out-loud laughter.

At the same time, “The King of Staten Island” boasts its own kind of awkward charm, the kind generated by focusing on a confused but basically good-hearted character who – slow to understand what he can be in life – is ultimately redeemed by his inherent sense of innocence.

Which, underscoring everything else, clearly is a role that was Pete Davidson’s destiny to play.

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