The King of Staten Island

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Scott is not all right.

Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you as much. Hey, ask him.

Oh, it may take a little work. He’ll tell you he doesn’t miss his fireman dad anymore, even though he died on the job when Scott was just 7. Ask Scott about his dreams, and he’ll tell you all about the combo-restaurant-tattoo parlor he hopes to start one day. Ruby Tattoosday? Bound to be a hit.

And certainly to his friends, with whom Scott smokes weed pretty much all day, every day, the 24-year-old seems perfectly normal. As normal as they are, anyway.

Still, catch Scott in a confessional mood, and he’ll confess.

“There’s something wrong with me,” Scott says. “Like, mentally. I’m not OK up there.”

Buckle up, because Scott’s already fragile psyche is about to take a couple more blows.

First, Scott’s worried younger sister heads off to college, removing a stabilizing influence in his life. It’s just he and his mom now. Then, after Scott tries to give a tattoo to a 9-year-old in the park, the kid’s impressively mustachioed father comes by and screams at both him and his mom. Discomforting.

But then Ray—that angry father, glowering mustache and all—starts dating his mother.

Oh, and here’s the kicker. Ray’s a fireman. Just like his dead dad.

No, Scott is not all right. Not right at all.

[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

Director Judd Apatow is a master at mixing outrageously terrible content with surprisingly sweet messages, and The King of Staten Island is, in that regard, of a piece with his portfolio.

Scott isn’t just a jerk (though for much of the movie he’s that, too). He’s a guy with some severe mental issues in desperate need of a father figure—or, at least, a good male role model. Against all odds, he eventually finds a semblance of that in Ray. Ray sees some promise and talent in this wayward twentysomething, and he eventually makes a pretty hefty sacrifice for the kid. Meanwhile, Scott grows to respect and even like Ray. Moreover, Ray becomes a conduit to a whole firehouse full of friends and role models—some of whom knew Scott’s father.

But if we must choose a hero for this strange little tale, it’d have to be Scott’s mom, Margie. She’s an emergency-room nurse: Like Ray, she helps people in their moments of dire need. But she’s been working triage on her own family for years now, too. It’s not easy to be a caring, supporting mom to someone like Scott. She loves her son, but she’s not blind to his faults. We see her do what might be the most difficult dance in the world: being loving and supporting while doing her best (with some encouragement elsewhere) to encourage him to find a better life trajectory.

Eventually, though, all that love and support has to be paired with a swift kick in the backside to really push Scott along.

Spiritual Elements

Scott has no confidence in an afterlife, which means the loss of his father feels so much more painful and permanent. When someone at a high-school graduation party tells Scott’s sister that her proud dad is looking down on her right now, Scott tells himself (quite audibly to the folks standing nearest to him), “No, he’s not.”

When a guy offers Scott a job, he says it’s because “I told your father I’d always look out for you.”

“How?” Scott asks. “He died in a fire. Did you ask his ghost?”

Scott gets a job as a busboy, but his boss makes his employees fight each other for their tips. Scott’s first tangle is with a waiter who says that fighting is “the way gg tribute my Lord and Savior, Jesus.” (Scott questions whether the guy’s “Lord and Savior would want you kicking my a–.”)

Scott scrawls various tattoos on people, some of which have a certain spiritual subtext (including a yin-yang symbol and a Jewish star). We see a tattoo of Jesus smoking a marijuana joint. Crosses dangle from necklaces. Someone crosses himself.

Sexual Content

Scott is in a sexual relationship with a woman named Kelsey. We see them engaged in lots of noisy, obvious sex (though we don’t see any actual nudity). Scott wouldn’t classify it as serious, though—even though she’d very much like him to. Because they’ve known each other since fourth grade, Scott suggests the whole relationship feels a little like incest. He and Kelsey have a discussion about Scott’s inability to climax; they speculate that it’s because of the antidepressants he takes.

Ray begins to stay overnight at Margie’s house, too. At first the couple sneak around to avoid telling Scott about their relationship. But eventually Ray moves in. Scott’s against the whole relationship: “Look what happened the last time!” he says, referencing his dead father. He tells someone, in fact, that Margie would sleep with lots of different men before choosing someone to settle down with. Scott does hear (in very crude terms), however, that Ray’s apparently good in bed.

We hear some jokes that reference pedophilia. For instance, Ray quips that Scott giving his son a tattoo was just “the second worst thing you could do to a kid in the woods.” When Scott walks Ray’s kids to school for the first time (the 9-year-old boy and his 7-year-old sister), Ray’s ex worries that Scott might be “weird.” But she lets them go with Scott anyway, giving her children a strong warning. “I’m pretty sure he’s not weird, but I could be wrong,” she tells them. (The daughter’s teacher also looks at Scott suspiciously.)

Characters discuss people suffering from venereal disease (as well as how people can get high using drugs designed to treat the disease). Scott’s sister tells him not to hit on one of her best friends (which she accuses him of doing in the past). We hear people talk about private body parts (their own and others), allusions to Ray’s sexual past, references to masturbation and oral sex, and the violent breeding habits of bed bugs. We see some sensual photos on a dating app. We see Scott shirtless frequently and Kelsey in her underwear (as well as other revealing garb). People kiss. We hear some pretty crass, sexually suggestive references to other people. Someone suggests that his sister is really his mother.

Violent Content

Scott takes a seriously injured man to the hospital. While the man’s cagey about how he got his wound, it appears to be from either a knife or a bullet, and he’s bleeding pretty badly. (Both Scott and another guy helping are eventually stained by some of the injured man’s blood.) The injured guy seems to nearly pass out in the emergency room waiting area before finally getting some attention.

Firefighting is obviously a dangerous job, and Scott watches as firefighters dodge flames and explosions to rescue people from inside a burning building (giving at least one first aid). Scott’s father died in a fire years earlier.

As mentioned, Scott’s workplace forces its employees to fight for their tips. Scott fights twice, and he gets the tar knocked out of him both times. He also fights another man and, after some shouting and wrestling, is thrown into the pool.

The movie begins with what actor/comedian Pete Davidson, who plays Scott, calls a suicide attempt. Scott’s driving a car down a freeway, clearly despondent and anxious, and he speeds up as he closes his eyes. He opens them and panics when Scott sees traffic snarled up ahead (perhaps because he doesn’t want to hurt any innocent bystanders). He swerves to miss traffic that had been stopped but sideswipes another car, sending that car careening into yet another. All of the damage seems to be relatively light, though. (He later tells/threatens his sister that, when she leaves for college, he’ll probably try to hurt himself.)

Scott inflicts pain of another kind when he stitches tattoos on his willing victims. The pain is part of the joy of getting them, and he tells Ray that he’s received so many of them because it helps him clear his own head.

A burglary gone wrong leads to several gunshots and someone getting hit in the shoulder with a slug. Scott and his friends watch The Purge, and they and we see a violent moment from the movie. There’s a suggestion somebody gets sexually stimulated while watching violent movies.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 140 f-words, about 60 s-words and a c-word. We also hear pretty much every other obscenity in the book, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” “d–k,” pr–k,” “n—er” and “p—y.” God’s name is misused about a dozen times, once with the word “d–n,” and Jesus’ name is abused about eight times. Some obscene gestures are flashed.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Scott is high for most of the movie. His drug of choice is, of course, marijuana, and he stinks because of it (as Ray often tells him). We see him and his friends smoke it, and one inhales smoke from a bong as well. Scott speculates about whether he’s even able to get high any longer, and he asks his friends if they do. “I like the lifestyle,” one tells him.

When Scott’s sister tells him that life is passing him by, Scott says, “That’s why I smoke weed all the time. It slows it all down.” And when he complains that he can’t go to sleep, someone tells him to “dip your weed in Nyquil.”

Scott and his friends also sell drugs: One kid sidles up next to the basement window (the basement serves as Scott and his friends’ hangout) and negotiates for some Xanax tablets for his brother.

Scott’s sister wants Scott to dress nicely for her graduation party, not like a guy who sells crack underneath the bridge. “I know the guy who sells crack under the bridge,” Scott retorts, “and he looks awesome.” He also references the legal antidepressants he takes.

We learn that Scott’s father also used drugs, as did most of the firemen he worked with. One quips that the firehouse leader did so much cocaine back in the day that he should have his “face on a nickel in Bolivia.” (The leader says he stopped several years ago, though.) When Scott asks mom Margie why she never told him about his father’s bad habits, Margie says there wasn’t an easy way to talk about it. It’s not like she could tell her boy, “Dad really loved watching cartoons with you because he was tripping all the time.”

Scott’s friends want to sell stolen drugs to “seed our dreams,” like the way Jay Z financed his rap career at first by selling crack. “Yeah, but aren’t most of Jay Z’s friends dead or in jail?” Scott asks. “We’re Jay Z in this situation,” one tells Scott.

People drink wine, beer, champagne, whiskey and other forms of alcohol, and several people drink to excess. Someone sprays intoxicating smoke at partygoers. People blow smoke rings. Someone asks for a shot of tequila. A pharmacy is robbed.

Someone asks Scott for a tattoo: When Scott initially turns him down because he’s inebriated, the man says, “Isn’t everybody drunk when they get their first tattoo?”

Other Negative Elements

Scott gives someone a tattoo around their belly button that’s designed to look like a cat’s anus. He draws another anal-related picture on a wall.

A boy vomits at Margie’s nursing station. We hear that someone lost all of his money “gambling.” (Turns out he was a day trader.) People do some pretty underhanded things. Ray has some anger management issues. Scott says some pretty cruel things and spits in a customer’s warm loaf of bread.

Conclusion

As you’ve discovered by now, The King of Staten Island is a mess. It’s filled with messy situations, messy happenings, messy relationships, messy content.

But life, particularly life touched by mental illness, is messy, too.

The King of Staten Island is a semi-autobiographical movie based on star and Saturday Night Live stalwart Pete Davidson’s own life. Like Scott’s father, Pete’s dad was a firefighter, and he died on the job—not in a hotel fire, but on 9/11. Pete has struggled with his own addictions and mental health issues, albeit far more publicly than Scott has. As recently as 2018, Davidson wrote on Instagram, “I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”

In a joint interview with Davidson in The New York Times, Director Judd Apatow said:

Collaborating on this was fraught with the possibility of failure, and I didn’t want to hurt Pete. You’d hate to ask Pete to share something so personal and make the worst movie ever. That was scary, but in a way, it was the motor behind the whole thing: Can we figure out how to be funny and authentic and explore these issues?

The King of Staten Island is funny and authentic and painful and problematic and offensive. It treats drug use like a joke, and that’s a huge issue. It’s plastered with profanity and littered with crass behavior and smothered by sexual content. But if you dig underneath it all, you see that this movie honors things better, things purer: Family. Love. Grace. Sacrifice. Work. Commitment. None of those underlying attributes excuse the content we see. But those very real, very obvious content issues don’t wipe away those attributes, either.

Mental illness and drug use create paradox in those we love. They bring with them a sense of heartbreak of failure and anger, mixed unalloyed with a fierce love and desire to protect. The King of Staten Island, at its best, reminds us of those paradoxes—how we can see Scott for the jerk that he can be and root for him all the same.

And maybe the movie’s a little like that, too.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.