Scott Carlin is a lot of work.
Ask anyone in Scott’s life: His beleaguered mother. His worried sister. His sort-of girlfriend. His wayward buddies. His mother’s new boyfriend.
The phrase “failure to launch’’ doesn’t really suffice when it comes to Scott (Pete Davidson) in “The King of Staten Island.’’ This 24-year-old man-child is a chronic, even compulsive, screw-up.
But there’s a reason. Scott is broken inside. Part of the achievement of this thoroughly engaging comedy-drama — inspired by Davidson’s own story and directed by Judd Apatow — is how hard we end up rooting for Scott to repair those broken parts of himself. Exasperating though he often is, we want him to get his life on track and to believe it is worth living.
Perhaps you have similar feelings about Davidson himself? The “Saturday Night Live’’ cast member has had a tumultuous time of it in the public eye; he’s been forthright about his emotional struggles, opening himself up to the slings and arrows (and occasional consolations) of social media.
Davidson proves similarly willing to go to a few so-hurtful-it’s-funny places in “The King of Staten Island.’’ There’s an element of bravery to his deeply felt performance, working from a sharp script by him, Apatow, and Dave Sirus that aims further and cuts deeper than the slacker-stoner gags it periodically deploys. The laughs in “The King of Staten Island’’ are earned, and they are frequent — a frequency that is no small accomplishment, given the pain and loss at the film’s center.
Scott is coping, or not, with half-buried, unresolved grief over the loss of his firefighter father, who died in the line of duty when the son was 7. It’s a story line with direct parallels to Davidson’s own life: Scott Davidson was a firefighter killed on 9/11. (In addition to taking the first name of the father for the son’s character, “The King of Staten Island’’ is dedicated to Scott Davidson.)
There’s an undertow of sadness to Davidson’s Scott Carlin as he smokes weed with his friends, makes fitful efforts towards a career as a tattoo artist (practicing on those friends, with semi-disastrous results), and wanders aimlessly through his days. When Davidson’s Scott smiles his toothy smile, it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He is wrestling with the dual burden of lionizing, while trying to live up to, a heroic father he barely knew.
Luckily for him, the impulse to save people runs in Scott’s family: His mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), an ER nurse, displays exceptional forbearance towards her floundering son, though Margie is no mere martyr. Tomei, an actress entirely capable of tonal variety, makes us believe in that forbearance — and also in the point when it ends, and tough love takes over. Scott’s younger sister, Claire (Maude Apatow, the daughter of Apatow and actress Leslie Mann), can’t remain angry at Scott whatever his misdeeds; Claire tries to expand his horizons by introducing him to college life.
Less willing to overlook Scott’s transgressions early on, however, is Margie’s voluble new boyfriend, Ray, a firefighter played by Bill Burr, wearing a handlebar mustache. Burr deftly balances Ray’s fundamental decency and his don’t-push-me-too-far edge. Even as Ray begins to challenge Scott, though, the film smartly endows him with flaws of his own to fix.
The person Scott opens up to the most is Kelsey, a friend-with-benefits who is brimming with personality as portrayed by an excellent Bel Powley. “There’s, like, something wrong with me, like, mentally,’’ Scott tells her. “Like, I’m not OK up there. . . . I’m scared of myself.’
This is not a film likely to gladden the hearts of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce. As with the Brooklyn of “Saturday Night Fever’’ (1977), Staten Island is depicted as a place to get away from, and Manhattan as the place to get to. Aspiration also points toward another formerly unfashionable outer borough in one amusing scene, when one of Scott’s friends asks plaintively: “Why can’t we be cool like Brooklyn?’’
Shtick aside, the people in “The King of Staten Island’’ mostly come across as people, not just movable pieces for comic setups. Davidson clearly knows and cares about the world he came from (he still lives on Staten Island). While Apatow is a Hollywood powerhouse, “The King of Staten Island’’ doesn’t come across as standard Hollywood product. It registers as a piece of personal filmmaking on the part of both director and star.
I have to confess that up to this point in his still-developing career I was more or less allergic to Pete Davidson, and I didn’t have high expectations for “The King of Staten Island.’’ This is one of those times when it feels good to be wrong.
THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND
Directed by Judd Apatow. Written by Apatow, Pete Davidson, and Dave Sirus. Starring Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley. 136 minutes. Available on various streaming platforms starting June 12. R (language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images).