‘The King of Staten Island’ Shines Spotlight On Millennial Ennui (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: A-

A fellow critic and friend of mine has an intriguing theory about Pete Davidson. How you feel about the SNL star, the theory goes, depends largely on how you feel about the scumbag friends you had in your 20s. Maybe that’s a bit reductive and unfair; Davidson, whatever faults you might perceive him to have, can’t entirely be labeled “a scumbag.” But, at the very least, he plays one on TV.

Over the past few years Davidson has become something of the figurehead for young millennial (post-millennial?) culture. He’s tattooed, slovenly, oozes a give-no-fucks attitude, and smokes, like, so much weed. He is, essentially, who a lot of us were as we took those first reticent steps into adulthood. Or, if we don’t want to admit that about ourselves, we at least knew that guy. The one who never left home, who was content to just lay about and work odd jobs while shiftlessly dreaming of what he would become, somehow, if he didn’t have to work for it.

Strictly speaking, he’s, well, me.

Which I guess speaks a lot towards my perceptions of Davidson going into The King of Staten Island. Davidson, at least in his public persona, makes me uncomfortable because I make myself uncomfortable. At least, my past self makes my present self feel uncomfortable. I remember my 20s less with nostalgia than I do shame. Jesus Christ, the amount of money I spent on weed alone could have ensured the building of a better life, one that wasn’t spent fueled by drugs and scheming, where nights ended at dawn and days began at dusk.

Now, as I near my 40s, it’s difficult to look back on who I used to be. Which, if my friend’s theory holds true, explains my discomfort with Davidson. I have been as hard on him as I am myself. I’m starting to think that maybe I’m being too hard on both of us. It’s not easy coming into your own as an adult, which leads to the oft-discussed “second adolescence” that’s so popularly maligned and deconstructed. Truth is, some of us need that time to become what we’re going to become. I guess it worked for me and it certainly seems to be working for Davidson.

While The King of Staten Island isn’t his first foray into a starring role of a motion picture, it might be the first that accurately portrays who he is as both a performer and a writer. On both accounts, he’s an artist of almost breathtaking honesty, one whose unafraid to use himself as the mirror into which we can gaze into ourselves, be it past self or current self, and think that maybe it is all going to be okay.

Directed by Judd Apatow, who also co-writes alongside Davidson and SNL writer Dave Sirus, The King of Staten Island is one of the best films to be released so far this year. Strictly speaking, that’s something I didn’t know I believed until I wrote it just now but, rereading it, I feel confident in its accuracy. It is Apatow at his best—real, heartfelt, poignant, hilarious—and offers Davidson a fantastic springboard into the next stages of his career.

Davidson stars as Scott Carlin, a fictionalized version of himself, who’s stuck in a state of arrested development and can’t seem to get his life together. Like Davidson, whose firefighter died in the 9/11 attacks, Scott’s dad died while on the job, leaving Scott unable, or unwilling, to grow up and get his life together. Instead, he hangs out with his friends smoking weed and dreaming of opening a tattoo parlor/restaurant while living rent free in his mother’s (Marisa Tomei) house. That all changes when his mom meets Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) and begins her first romantic relationship since her husband died. With the thread of being kicked out of his house looming over him, Scott must find a way to grow into the man he really wants to be.

The King of Staten Island is, essentially, a film exploring the process of trauma recovery. Scott is a young man who has never dealt with the pain of his father’s death because he’s never been forced to. The result is his inability to find his footing in life, leaving him afraid and unwilling to take the steps he needs to take to grow up and embrace who he is. Because the truth about extended adolescence is that, for many young men, the problem stems with an unwillingness to heal.

Davidson portrays this reality brilliantly, bringing a subtle pathos to Scott that’s hidden between the lines of his constant sarcasm and snark. Nearly every line he utters acts as an armor to his emotional core, wounded by the death of his father, and prevents him from growing up and becoming an adult. It’s funny on the surface—this being an Apatow movie, after all—but, like the best comedies, hides a deep emotional undercurrent that speaks to the wholeness of the character.

This is a reality in which every “I don’t care” holds the subtext of “please help me.” Davidson, then, becomes the epitome of the sad clown, masking himself that no one, himself included, can see the truth of his pain and emotional suffering. Davidson, as both co-writer and star, offers one of the best presentations of this truth ever seen on screen.

Laudable as the film might be overall, The King of Staten Island is far from perfect. At 137 minutes, it suffers from the same problem from which so many Apatow films suffer, the director’s inability to cut scenes that, while funny, don’t necessarily add much to the overall narrative. There are a few scenes that work in a vacuum but bring the story to a jarring halt. Still, given the strength of everything the film does have going for it, it’s not a total impediment. (In fact, one can almost imagine a miniseries version of The King of Staten Island where the scenes in question might have added an entirely new depth to the character and narrative.)

Imperfect though it might be, the effect overall is stunning. Whatever you might think of Davidson, he subverts your thoughts here, revealing himself to be an artist of considerable talent. And I’m thinking there might something to my friend’s “Larger Theory of Pete Davidson.” Publicly, his persona reminds us of so much we dislike about our own youth or the friends who never quite managed to get themselves together. We elder millennials see so much of ourselves in the actor and how he’s portrayed in the media, and it causes us to recoil, somewhat, based on our own feelings about our friends and ourselves.

In doing so, however, we miss the reality that, for the most part, things do tend to work themselves out in the end. We grow up, we mature, we come to terms with the anguish of our pasts and allow ourselves, finally, to move on. The King of Staten Island is a wonderful reminder of that truth, and a powerful affirmation that maybe the kids really are alright.

Thanks for that, Pete.

The King of Staten Island is now available on demand.

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