An imperfect king
Review: The King of Staten Island
The King of Staten Island is a comedy from director/producer Judd Apatow that plumbs the depths of grief and mental health.
Like many films released during the COVID-19 pandemic, The King of Staten Island had a shorter run in cinemas, followed by a wider premium digital release. For a short time, it was the most-rented film in the US, breaking even on its relatively small $35 million budget. Now released on standard digital platforms, the film is well worth catching for those who missed it the first time, provided its idiosyncrasies match their own.
The King of Staten Island stars Saturday Night Live standout Pete Davidson as Steve Carlin, an affable stoner whose life on the titular Staten Island appears to be going nowhere. Living at home with his single mother Margie (Marissa Tomei), he spends his days coping with his mental illness, smoking copious amounts of weed, and practising his tattoos on his friends. His world is shaken up, however, when his sister Claire leaves for college and his Mum starts dating Ray (Bill Burr), a foul-mouthed fireman whose first encounter with Steve is a tense war of words. With his world changing around him, Steve has to make a number of decisions that could very well be the difference between life and death.
Overshadowing all of this is the memory of Steve’s father, the late firefighter Stan, whose legacy the young man struggles to live up to.
The King of Staten Island is one of those rare films that manages to come across as touching and authentic without ever once resorting to cliché. The film says a good deal about the nature of grief and what it means to be a parent. With Steve’s penchant for self-sabotage, the script could easily resort to familiar moralising or a well-trodden redemption arc, yet The King of Staten Island does not dole out easy answers.
The film’s cast all deliver the material well. While it is difficult to nominate any one standout, this is a personal story for producer/writer/star Pete Davidson. Davidson’s own late father was a fireman who passed away during the September 11 attacks, and the comedian has been open about his own struggles with depression. The film, then, could be considered something of a loose adaptation of Davidson’s life. Marissa Tomei also delivers a strong performance as Margie, a strong character who nonetheless struggles with how to draw boundaries with the people she cares for. Bill Burr’s portrayal of Ray will be familiar to anyone who has seen his prior roles, with all of the angry outbursts and tics, but it would be a disservice to his performance to call it typical as there are certainly moments where he demonstrates he is capable of delivering on the more subtle moments.
As touching as The King of Staten Island genuinely is, it is certainly not a film that is recommended for everybody. With all of its drug references and at points harsh portrayal of reality, it will surely be off-putting for some. There is something of a litmus test here: If director Judd Apatow’s prior work does not appeal to you, this film will not make you a convert.
For those who are ok with its rawness and occasional crass moments, The King of Staten Island offers a thoughtful comedy.
Content warning: the below trailer contains course language.
The King of Staten Island is now available on Blu Ray/DVD and digital release.