Just as the Greeks and Shakespeare knew, comedy stems from tragedy. Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”) knows it too. After fashioning a real-life based romantic comedy and starring vehicle for comic Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck,” he does the same for SNL’s Pete Davidson. Giving Davidson the lead role in his new film “The King of Staten Island” and using the real-life tragedy of Davidson’s firefighter father’s death as a springboard, Apatow imperceptibly creates comedic gold. With all of Apatow’s (and Staten Island’s) trademark sarcasm and cynicism, it’s one of the best films you’ll see this year and it’s available on demand.
Davidson stars as Scott, a directionless 24 year-old living at home with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) in Staten Island, New York. Scott’s firefighter father died on the job when Scott was 7, and the loss of growing up without a father has taken its toll on Scott. Plagued with low self-esteem, ADD and Crohn’s disease, Scott’s future looks bleak. Spending his days with his stoner buddies, Scott’s aspirations are limited to being a tattoo artist (Scott sketches well and is fond of tattoos, as his multi-tattooed upper torso can attest). Scott’s drawing talent and the futility of his circumstance lead him to the pipedream of opening a tattoo parlor/restaurant named Ruby Tattuesday. Everyone around him thinks it’s a bad idea.
One day, hanging outside with his friends, Scott encounters 9 year-old Harold (Luke Davis Blumm). Harold is unfazed by the older boys, and Scott and his friends admire the kid’s fearlessness. Harold’s fear emerges when he consents to a tattoo after seeing Scott with his ink gun but chickens out when Scott proceeds inking Harold’s arm. Being unfazed seems status quo in Staten Island: Scott scarring Harold is no worse an idea than Ruby Tattuesday and Harold gave his consent after all (so what if he’s 9?).
Harold’s father Ray (Bill Burr) finds Scott’s house to confront him and meets mom Margie. Margie, a nurse, offers to fix Harold’s arm. After heated dialogue turns humorous, she diffuses Ray’s temper. Ray, no longer with his wife, begins dating Margie and his presence as well as his profession- a firefighter – opens old wounds for Scott. Even Scott’s own relationship with lifelong friend-with-benefits Kelsey (Bel Powley) adds fuel to the fire. Just as Ray and Margie’s romance blossoms, Kelsey wants a similar commitment that Scott’s deflated self-esteem consistently sabotages.
What makes “King” work so well is what makes the best of Apatow’s films work: funny situations and strong supporting characters. In situations like Scott, relegated to working as a busboy, finds staff tips dispensed to the winner of an after-hours ‘fight club’ or with supporting characters like Scott’s stoner friends, admitting the high isn’t drugs but in the lifestyle- they all demonstrate Apatow’s strength in building a sense of community (conceivably one that can shake Scott from his stupor).
As its star, Davidson grounds “King” nicely by making Scott an empathetic likeable loser and the script he co-wrote with Apatow and Dave Sirus gives the film a real neighborhood feel. “King’s” oddly reminiscent of movies like “Rocky” and “Saturday Night Fever”- a neighborhood movie where you want the protagonist to prevail. From Scott’s stunted growth to overcoming personal obstacles, the movie’s a unique blend of coming-of-age and underdog story that has you rooting for Scott to straighten out. It’s an impressive cast that’s assembled and they make the most of their microcosm. In this comedic Staten Island community, Apatow proves he’s king.