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'The King of Staten Island' review: Judd Apatow-Pete Davidson comedy feels more irksome than endearing

Pete Davidson as Scott Carlin in :The King

Pete Davidson as Scott Carlin in :The King of Staten Island," directed by Judd Apatow. Credit: Universal Pictures/Mary Cybulski

PLOT In his mid-20s, the son of a fallen firefighter finds himself adrift.

CAST Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr

RATED R (drug use, language, brief violence)

LENGTH 2:17

WHERE On demand and on multiple streaming platforms

BOTTOM LINE Judd Apatow’s latest comedy feels more irksome than endearing, despite Davidson’s autobiographical screenplay.

“The King of Staten Island” opens with Scott Carlin, a depressed young man played by Pete Davidson, driving down a busy highway. Overcome by self-loathing, he decides to shut his eyes. It’s a possible suicide attempt — and one heck of a gamble for director and co-writer Judd Apatow. He’s betting that audiences will give their hearts to this desperately sad young man, rather than condemn him as a narcissistic sociopath.

If you fall into the latter camp, as I did, this will be the death-knell for “The King of Staten Island” — and you’ll still have two-plus hours to go. The movie has its merits: There are funny moments, glimmers of poignancy and characters who are a pleasure to meet. But there is no getting around the toxic figure of Scott. Apatow, in tracing his dependable blueprint for a man-child protagonist — the kind that worked so well in “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” — forgot to give this one any redeeming qualities.

Some fault lies with Davidson, the “Saturday Night Live” comedian who also co-wrote (with Dave Sirus). Scott is a dark self-portrait. Like Davidson, he is a copious weed smoker with depression and Crohn’s disease who lives on Staten Island with his mother (the great Marisa Tomei plays Maggie Carlin). The most crucial similarity: Scott’s father, a firefighter, died during a rescue (Davidson’s died on 9/11). This loss is Scott’s primal wound, the one that has severely arrested his development.

Davidson’s performance feels honest and even brave: Scott snarls at strangers, mistreats his sometime girlfriend (a winning Bel Powley as Kelsey) and has to look up to his younger sister (Maude Apatow as Claire). Scott makes only the worst decisions: An aspiring tattoo artist, he practices on a 9-year-old boy whose father, Ray Bishop (an excellent Bill Burr), visits the Carlins in a rage. Ray eventually softens; in fact, he begins dating Maggie. And despite her son’s jealousy and nastiness, Ray lets Scott crash at the firehouse for a spell. 

Tomei and Burr are so good together that they seem to be in a movie all their own. Mostly, though, “The King of Staten Island” wavers unsteadily (an Apatow hallmark) between crude stoner comedy, family heart-warmer and lacerating character study. You may not be surprised to learn that this muddled movie ends with a meaning-laden shot of … Manhattan.

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