THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND movie poster | ©2020 Universal Pictures

THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND movie poster | ©2020 Universal Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bel Powley, Bill Burr, Maude Apatow
Writers: Judd Apatow & Pete Davidson & Dave Sirus
Director: Judd Apatow
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: June 12, 2020

THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is so targeted at a specific audience that it may be unfair for anybody who’s not in that demographic to review it. The movie is dedicated to star/co-writer’s Pete Davidson’s father, the late firefighter Scott Davidson, and it’s impossible not to respect the sincerity of the tribute.

THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND has Davidson playing Scott Carlin, who at age twenty-four, is still living at home with his patient mother, professional nurse Margie (Marisa Tomei). Younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is graduating from high school and heading straight to college, but beyond an interest in becoming a tattoo artist, Scott has no aspirations for education or employment. He hangs with his likewise unfocused goofball friends, refuses to acknowledge that he’s in a relationship with his girlfriend/best friend Kelsey (Bel Powley), and generally is a defensive, insensitive jerk. We realize early on that Scott has in some ways been frozen since age seven, when his firefighter father died in the line of duty.

That last fact has to carry a whole lot of weight. THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND is about how Scott incrementally turns into a human being. This is a valid topic. Even so, exactly how much patience the individual viewer has with it depends on how much one can cope with (sorry for the cliché) a straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class twenty-four-year-old American cis-gendered male whining and lashing out for over an hour before any sympathetic behavior emerges.

A romantic subplot between Margie and firefighter Ray (Bill Burr) may go down a lot easier with general audiences. It’s gentle, amusing without pushing too hard, and offers a pleasant look at a relationship between two mature but out-of-practice adults. However, per Scott’s need to make everything about himself, he co-opts this as well.

Davidson is known for his work as a performer on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. There is much about Scott’s affect and delivery that suggests stand-up comedy jokes, which, again, may land better with people who can directly relate to the character. Davidson’s performance is perfectly suited to the material – we may not like Scott, but we believe him. Tomei and Burr are deft and credible, and Powley is excellent in her underwritten role.

While this isn’t a deal-breaker, it’s curious that a film titled THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND has relatively little to say about its setting. Kelsey wants to make the place great and everybody else seems to think it’s something to be ashamed of, but at least for non-New Yorkers, it’s unclear what if anything makes this place different from other outside-Manhattan cities.

Director Judd Apatow, who wrote the script with Davidson & Dave Sirus, paces for comedy. We’re aware of what’s meant to prompt laughs. The work is skillful enough that, even if some things don’t land as funny, they never fall flat. THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND gives us a character study that follows the rules of its own internal logic. Still, like Scott, it takes longer than we’d like to provide something that actively engages us. The movie puts across its story with empathy for its protagonist, but whether we can share that depends much upon whether we identify with Scott, or simply recognize him.

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