If you didn’t know you were watching the latest comedy directed by Judd Apatow, the opening scene of “The King of Staten Island” might prime you to expect something a little harder-edged — a tense psychodrama, maybe, with a millennial Travis Bickle speeding angrily down a highway.
But Scott (Pete Davidson) isn’t a sociopath. He’s just a screw-up, scrunching his face into a ball of pain and hitting the accelerator with reckless abandon. He swerves at the last minute and drives off unscathed — the cars behind him aren’t so lucky — and winds up muttering to no one in particular: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Dumb decisions and useless apologies pile up fast in “The King of Staten Island,” all served up with the requisite Apatovian panoply of weed-fueled witticisms and shoutouts to mainstream popular culture (“Game of Thrones”!). But there’s something a little strained and mechanical about those jokes this time, partly because the movie is trying to get at something serious and partly because Davidson is not, to his credit, the most intuitive star to build a crowd-pleasing vehicle around.
In recent years, the 26-year-old comedian has become an attention-grabbing fixture of “Saturday Night Live” and tabloid headlines, and has stuck out from both like a fascinating, unusually gangly thumb. Untold column inches have been devoted to gossipy scrutiny of everything from his physical appearance — his chest covered with tattoos, an endowment so allegedly generous it spawned its own acronym — to his string of celebrity relationships and his self-acknowledged struggles with borderline personality disorder.
Davidson hails, in short, from that school of comedians who like to put their demons front and center. And he has now done that by co-writing (with Apatow and Dave Sirus) this personally inspired movie about loss and emotional recovery, which doubles as a funny valentine to the New York borough he calls home.
A Staten Island upbringing isn’t the only thing Davidson and his alter ego have in common. They both have Crohn’s disease (which generates a brief, amusing public service announcement). They both smoke a lot of pot. And they both were only 7 years old when their firefighter dads were killed in the line of duty. (Davidson’s father died responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.)
Scott can laugh off that tragedy now, or at least he pretends he can, but beneath the whatever-man slacker vibes, it’s clear that the loss has scarred him deeply. Although his younger sister (Maude Apatow) is about to leave for college, Scott, now 24, doesn’t have much going on. He spends his days dreaming of becoming a professional tattoo artist (he uses his buddies for practice) and still lives at home with his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), who’s too sympathetic at first to give him the kick in the shorts he needs.
But that kick is on its way, and it will be co-administered by Ray (Bill Burr, sensational), a recently divorced father of two who — through a chain of events for which Scott has only himself to blame — becomes the new man in Margie’s life. Things get serious fast, and tensions between the two men heat up accordingly.
Ray is quick to criticize Scott’s laziness and loser attitude. Scott can’t stand Ray’s bluster, his mustache (it’s pretty bad) or the fact that he happens to be a firefighter — a coincidence that neatly but effectively raises the specter of his dad’s death, which hovers as quietly yet visibly in the background as the Manhattan skyline.
Nearly every exchange between these two men roils with comic tension, which is a testament to Burr’s ability to be both genuinely annoying and genuinely likable, sometimes in the same moment. He’s a meddler, a blowhard and a hothead. He’s also a loving boyfriend to Margie and, like Scott’s dad, a man selflessly devoted to the hard work of saving people’s lives. He’s quite a character, a foil and an antagonist whom you suspect you could follow into a good movie of his own.
The movie gets better still when we get to meet some of Ray’s colleagues down at the firehouse, played by actors including Jimmy Tatro, Domenick Lombardozzi and a typically pitch-perfect Steve Buscemi. This sterling blue-collar character work on the sidelines of the main action is a pleasure unto itself. It also plays a crucial role in Scott’s healing, as he transforms from an avatar of deadpan comic chaos into the latest Apatow poster child for tough love and self-improvement.
“The King of Staten Island” works hard to strike its own artful balance of humor and heartache, qualities that both seem permanently etched in Davidson’s face. Part of the movie’s inevitable fascination is the question of how much is made up and how much might be rooted in lived experience: One scene, in which Scott launches into a furious rant about how firefighters shouldn’t be allowed to have children, cuts pretty close to the bone. It’s a scene that points to something else that unites Scott and Davidson: a gift for making their audience squirm, for letting their anguish seep out from behind a big, mirthless smile.