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King of Staten Island can't decide how to combine comedy with its troubled central character

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In the opening scene of King of Staten Island, Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) is driving along a New York expressway, when he abruptly shuts his eyes tightly—and keeps on driving. He barely avoids being in the middle of the accident he causes, leaving wreckage behind him as he drives away whispering an apology. Later, he backs away from the prospect of a relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley), the childhood friend he's been hooking up with, by warning about the lack of impulse control that could put her in danger. This guy, it's quite clear, needs help.

If it doesn't sound yet like we're talking about a comedy, that's part of the problem with King of Staten Island. A thinly fictionalized version of Davidson's own life story co-written by Davidson, former Saturday Night Live writer Dave Sirus and director Judd Apatow, it introduces Scott as a 24-year-old high-school dropout/aspiring tattoo artist still living with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) in their Staten Island home, and still deeply affected by the on-the-job death of his firefighter dad 17 years earlier. As Scott's younger sister (Maude Apatow) heads off to college, Margie begins a relationship with divorced firefighter Ray (Bill Burr)—her first relationship since the death of Scott's father. And Scott isn't dealing with the situation particularly well.

What Scott does deal with particularly well is hanging out with his buddies (Moises Arias, Ricky Velez and Lou Wilson) getting high—which is also the kind of scenario Judd Apatow deals with particularly well. As was generally true of Apatow joints like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, King of Staten Island is most engaging when it's a hangout movie, with the characters riffing and offering up tart punch lines. In the Apatow tradition, the film runs over two hours, and it's largely because the director is more interested in leaving in a good joke than figuring out whether that joke serves some larger story—and there are quite a few good jokes, particularly when you can take advantage of cast members like Pamela Adlon as Ray's embittered ex-wife.

The problem with the larger story is that Apatow is trying to shape it into one of his favored tales of arrested male adolescence, which doesn't entirely square with a central character who clearly has genuine mental health issues. Consequently, Davidson struggles with how to portray this character who is essentially himself—as an affable stoner who needs to figure out what the hell to do with his life and could learn important life lessons by shepherding Ray's two kids to school, or somebody for whom "get a job" shows a cruel disregard for his mental illness. That problem folds over into the relationship between Scott and Ray, which brings up all of Scott's unresolved issues with is father's death and ultimately allows Scott a chance to think about his father as a human being rather than as a saintly hero. It feels like oversimplifying a messy life to suggest that a young man on medication really just needs a bit of emotional catharsis.

It's not that King of Staten Island is "cheating" in some way by offering Scott a shot at a happy ending—even if the climactic set-up for that happy ending feels like it's built around a completely unnecessary plot point. But Apatow's sprawling, goofy comedies are most satisfying when it's possible to tune out the plot as needed to appreciate his funny set pieces; nobody understood Steve Carell's character better from 40 Year Old Virgin's body-hair-waxing scene, but plenty of us laughed loudly at it. This premise simply feels like a completely wrong fit for Apatow's genial sensibility, because it's hard for him to know how to incorporate material about someone getting shot during a robbery attempt or suicidal ideation into gags about Scott designing a tattoo of a cat on his buddy's stomach so the belly button is the cat's butthole. In terms of how to pitch the comedy, it matters whether Scott Carlin is the kind of guy who has the capability to pull himself up by his bootstraps, or the kind of guy who has a lot of professional work ahead of him to keep him from driving through traffic with his eyes closed.

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