The King of Staten Island

2020 has been a strange and terrible year, and one small part of that has been the closure of movie theaters, forcing blockbusters, art house films, and festivals to sit on ice until things can open up again. Supposedly that will happen in late July, with Christopher Nolan's Tenet hoping to finally put butts back in seats. But as of this writing, on June 25th, even Tenet seems an uncertain proposition. So I write this review with nostalgia for the good old days, when going out to a movie was a harmless activity. I also write with some anxiety that the day that filmmakers and film lovers have feared since the 1950s – audiences finally giving up on moviegoing altogether – may have finally arrived.

Exhibit A: The King of Staten Island.

Originally slated for a theatrical release, Universal decided not to wait for the go-ahead from cinemas, nor did it opt to make a deal with Netflix or Amazon. And so this is, I believe, the first major Hollywood movie, made for grownups, to debut on Video On Demand – at a hefty price point of $19.99. That may a bargain if you're a couple who would have otherwise gone out to see this on a Friday night. But for a solo moviegoer like me, who almost always catches the cheaper matinees and whose home television screen is pretty small, it's not sustainable. If this is the future of film, I don't know how much a part of it I can be.

Anyway, that this review is more about the state of cinema than about The King of Staten Island says something about the movie. It's a sweet, funny, thoughtful comedy, the sort of thing you've come to expect from Judd Apatow, but it's not particularly remarkable.

Troubled Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson stars as a fictionalized version of himself, a cannabis-dependent slacker named Scott who, at 24, can't be bothered to move out of his mother's house and get a life. Scott's only dream is to be a tattoo artist, yet he obviously – and hilariously – lacks the talent for it. When his mother (Maria Tomei) starts dating a macho firefighter (standup comic Bill Burr, sporting an awful mustache), Scott finds himself jealous and resentful – not least because his beloved dad was a fireman who died on the job when Scott was just a kid.

Davidson's own FDNY father perished on 9/11, but despite this poignant semi-autobiographical detail, The King of Staten Island mostly trods over familiar movie comedy territory: Fatherless manchild can't deal with mom's new boyfriend, has to learn some hard lessons and grow up. (Tomei herself has been in at least a couple of these movies, namely Cyrus and, to a degree, Spider-Man: Far from Home.)

With his heavily tattooed body and his froggish face, Pete Davidson is a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy. Personally I found him an agreeable enough leading man, although his work walks a thin line between "knows how to act" and "may not actually know how to act". I have a bigger problem with his character. In short, I don't think Scott is adequately defined. If he's angry or depressed, he doesn't really seem it; even his Crohn's Disease, a serious affliction that Davidson himself suffers from, is mentioned offhandedly, as if Scott merely gets the occasional hangnail. Still, Davidson's got expert comic delivery – I laughed out loud at several of his throwaway lines. And in the end I did find myself sort of rooting for his character. In fact, the most touching scene in the film is a fleeting moment in which Scott simply scoots out of the way of a team of firefighters rushing off to an emergency. Intentionally or not, it shows us, in one glimpse, what The King of Staten Island is about: quietly accepting your place in the world, however small that place might be.