Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), the loser hero of “The King of Staten Island,” is a 24-year-old trash-talking punk stoner who lives with his mother in Staten Island and has no plans whatsoever — for a career, a life, or the next five minutes. He’s a slacker, a lout, and a self-pitying anger-management case who has never gotten over the death of his firefighter father 17 years ago. Was his dad a good guy? Not really. But the feeling that life cheated Scott out of growing up with a father is his big excuse for everything, and it has left him stewing in a toxic juice of resentment and depression, which he covers up by getting high and doing as little as possible. When he’s sitting around with his buddies, sunk into the pleather couch chairs in his mom’s basement, passing a blunt around as they play video games and watch violent junk like “The Purge” and talk about who gave who an STD (“So you assisted in the chlamydia”), he’s in his element because he feels safe. He’s gone back to the wastrel womb.
Davidson, with his scrawled wall of chest tattoos, his WTF-if-it-feels-good-say-it mouthiness, and his handsome but slightly simian pop-eyed dysfunctional stare, would be the perfect actor to play a burnout bro like Scott even if “The King of Staten Island” weren’t a gloss on his own life. As it happens, the movie, directed by Judd Apatow from a script he co-wrote with Davidson and David Sirus, tells a what-if? version of the Pete Davidson story. Davidson, too, grew up in the nondescript nowheresville of Staten Island and lost his firefighter father when he was a kid (though his dad was one of the fallen heroes of 9/11, which isn’t the case in the movie).
In “The King of Staten Island,” Davidson re-imagines himself as the kind of Middle American lump he might have turned into had he never become a comedian. Scott says a lot of funny things (about his home borough: “We’re, like, the only place that New Jersey looks down on. You can see the garbage dump from space”), but they aren’t delivered as jokes; they’re just how he sees the world. He’s a dude with a sharp-minded instinct but no filter, which leads him to make all kinds of cruel and inappropriate observations, a number of which will leave you in hysterics. On the eve of his sister’s high-school graduation party, when his sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), learns that he’s planning to wear cargo shorts and a plaid shirt the color of caramel, she tells their mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), “He looks like he fuckin’ sells crack under a bridge.” To which Scott replies, “I know the guy who sells crack under the bridge, okay? And he looks awesome.” Scott is sleeping with Kelsey (Bel Powley), the echt Staten Island girl he has known since grade school, and she’s a sweetie who’d be ideal for him if only he could see it. There’s a scuzzy sincerity to Scott, who wields the recklessness of his wit like a blunt instrument. That’s part of what makes him weirdly likable.
If there were any lingering doubts that Pete Davidson has what it takes to be a terrific actor, this movie should dispel them. In “The King of Staten Island,” he holds the screen with his blinkered, scurrilous, and oddly innocent I did-what? personality, and for the first time he makes the sociopathic goofball he’s playing a fully dimensional presence.
For its compelling first hour, “The King of Staten Island” is content to ramble along with Scott in a way that’s both authentic and pleasurable. All the details feel just right (the Carlins’ cruddy bilevel looks like the kind of place that even production scouts looking for a cruddy bilevel would have rejected), and it’s enough to raise your hopes that the movie might be as memorable a study of a slovenly libertine as Apatow’s “Trainwreck” was.
The challenge built into “The King of Staten Island” is this: How do you take a character like Scott, who opens the film by practically killing himself on the Staten Island Expressway, and remain true to him…but also watch him grow? Do you plunge him into greater and greater mishaps of his own devising? Or do you rescue him from his worst impulses? In “Trainwreck,” made in collaboration with its star, Amy Schumer, Apatow took the first option. Here, to our surprise, he takes the second.
Scott nurtures half-baked ambitions of becoming a tattoo artist (and of opening a tattoo restaurant, which many point out to him is the worst idea ever), and there’s a hilarious scene in which he tries to ink the arm of a local 9-year-old boy; the kid’s father, Ray (Bill Burr), then drops by with steam shooting out of his ears. He winds up asking Scott’s mom out for coffee, and the two become involved. Bill Burr, with a bald head and an ugly mustache, suggests a workaday Jon Voight, and the Oedipal war between Ray and Scott rings true, amped up by the fact that Ray is a fireman too. But the overlap draws Scott to the local fire station, where he gets to know the guys (including a gruff ladder-house tribal elder played by Steve Buscemi, who was a fireman). And at this point you can feel the movie going soft.
It’s an appealing idea in the abstract: Could Scott heal by finding the father — the fireman — within himself? But it all unfolds too conventionally, until suddenly we look up and realize that Scott has opened the door to solving all his problems in about 45 minutes of screen time. Sorry, but that’s too easy — and the film loses its rude pulse. “The King of Staten Island” works perfectly as the story of a screwup, not so well when it’s bending over backwards for you to feel good about him.