SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month.

The new 'King' of Hollywood? Pete Davidson lends jokes – and real depth – to 'Staten Island'

Brian Truitt
USA TODAY

Pete Davidson is an acquired taste.

That’s not a slam. He’s self-deprecating, makes jokes about sex, drugs, exes and suicide, and raps with Adam Sandler. Take it or leave it, he is who he is, but whatever you think of his sense of humor, there’s an honesty about Davidson that's unmistakable and appealing.

In “Saturday Night Live” sketches, the comedian often feels like he’s just riffing on himself. And in his new semi-autobiographical comedy “The King of Staten Island” (streaming Friday on digital platforms), it’s literally what he’s done. Davidson, whose firefighter father died in the 9/11 attacks, co-wrote the script with director Judd Apatow about a 24-year-old man-child who's been stuck in arrested development ever since his fireman dad perished in the line of duty when he was 7.

Summer movie preview:The 10 must-see new movies to stream while stuck at home

'SNL:Pete Davidson, Adam Sandler rap about being 'Stuck in the House' during quarantine

"The King of Staten Island"
Directed by: Judd Apatow
Starring: Pete Davidson, Bel Powley, Marisa Tomei

Originally slated for South by Southwest, the comedy about a slacker tattoo artist (Davidson) is forgoing a theatrical release and hit digital platforms June 12.

The tattooed Davidson, 26, sings about quarantining with his mom, Amy, on Staten Island, New York; his heavily inked “King” character Scott lives there with his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), too. That’s probably not a really huge stretch for him.

However, what Davidson does that is remarkable in the new movie is show his range as a performer while also letting us in a little bit more on who he really is and opening up about struggles with trauma and mental health. The result is a three-dimensional human more fascinating and relatable – on and off-screen – than the guy who shows up in headlines because he dates pop stars, offends congressmen and compares the Catholic Church to R. Kelly.

“Staten Island,” of course, is filled with gags and cracks about antidepressants, masturbation, “The Purge” and even his late father, whose death date Scott has inked on his arm. Regularly hanging and smoking weed with his ne’er-do-well friends, Scott has pie-in-the-sky dreams of starting a "tattoo restaurant." As far as the actual tattooing part goes, he's pretty bad at it – “inconsistent” is what he'd admit – and even tries to permanently mark a 9-year-old as one of his many unwise decisions.

Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson, left) visits firefighters like Papa (Steve Buscemi) who remember his late father in "The King of Staten Island."

From the start, though, Davidson infuses Scott with palpable depth underneath the laid-back slacker surface. He has enough of a death wish to close his eyes while driving on the highway, seat belt unbuckled, yet not enough to go through with it. “I’m sorry,” Scott says over and over, causing an accident and also setting a tone about a dude who does want to get better yet wrestles with actually doing it.

“You deserve somebody way better than me,” Scott says in another scene with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley). “There’s something wrong with me mentally. I’m not all right up there.” Her response: “I just feel bad you don’t think you’re great.”

There's a mix of the surreal and the sublime in Scott's existence. In one hilarious sequence, he's at a loss for what to do when he runs into a guy who got knifed. Other times, you can see the adult emerging as Scott learns more about his dad as a person rather than a memory by hanging with firefighters who knew him, including one (Steve Buscemi) who takes Scott under his wing. 

Scott (Pete Davidson, center) walks Kelly (Alexis Rae Forlenza) and Harold (Luke David Blumm) to school in "The King of Staten Island."

The most remarkable scenes are the ones where he’s the oldest guy around. Scott’s journey of growing up and coming to grips with the loss of his father involves Ray (Bill Burr), the abrasive fireman his mom starts dating, who makes Scott pick up his two young kids at his ex-wife’s house and walk them to school.

The sight of tall and gawky Scott hunched over so he can hold the children’s hands is insanely adorable and adds a whole new layer to the complex persona Davidson builds: While Scott has trouble connecting with other adults, he gets kids and they get him, and those scenes showcase Davidson’s deft comedic touch as well as a charmingly empathetic nature.

Davidson is who he is – and sometimes is forced to apologize for it. You won’t be sorry seeing his performance in “King of Staten Island,” a testament to the distinguished actor he could be.