Pete Davidson is many things — SNL bit player, the cilantro of stand-up comedians, briefly the world’s most famous boyfriend, currently the world’s most famous ex-boyfriend. But can he be a movie star?
It’s a question I’ve pondered before, back in January 2019, when Davidson earned a string of good reviews for his supporting turn in the Sundance comedy Big Time Adolescence. After dispiriting initial results in projects like Set It Up, that film brought reason for cautious optimism: Davidson could carry a scene, and was clearly trying more than in his earlier film appearances, though it was still possible to notice the director cutting around him during key emotional moments.
A year and a half later, it’s time to check back in. This month brings Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island, a semi-autobiographical Davidson vehicle that’s Hollywood’s most serious attempt yet to see if the comedian turned tabloid mainstay has what it takes to make the jump to big-screen success. Or at least, that was the plan; as with Ana de Armas, Davidson’s prospective career leap got derailed by the coronavirus, as King of Staten Island was forced to abandon its planned theatrical release and go straight to video on demand. Still, if there was ever a summer a VOD release was just as good as the real thing, it would be this one. In Davidson’s first shot at carrying a movie, does he pull it off?
In King of Staten Island, the 26-year-old comedian is not exactly asked to show off the range: He plays Scott, a 24-year-old layabout who lives in his mother’s basement on Staten Island, has an affinity for tattoos and marijuana, suffers from anxiety and Crohn’s disease, and grieves his firefighter dad, who died when he was young. (Apatow’s major editing choice is to strip out the 9/11 element of Davidson’s backstory, which might have been too weighty for this shaggy narrative.) It’s hardly a transformative role, but as in Big Time Adolescence, it gives Davidson plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his remarkably sympathetic screen presence. That may sound like faint praise, but think of actors like Shia LaBeouf or Miles Teller, who for all their obvious talent and charisma have never quite been able to elicit that kind of softness from viewers. Despite his comparative lack of craft, Davidson has an openness to him. His addled energy, that rictus grin — he resembles a German Expressionist hero you somehow want to hug.
Davidson also proves a generous scene partner. It helps, of course, when you’ve got Marisa Tomei and Bill Burr acting their hearts out, in a middle-aged romance that’s the beating heart of the film. But Davidson plays well off both of them, and he’s got plenty of chemistry with the rest of the ensemble too. Sometimes, a little too much chemistry: There’s a tension in his scenes with Maude Apatow that brings to mind the early stages of a will-they-won’t-they romance, before you remember she’s playing his sister.
That all these co-stars get room to shine speaks to the recessive nature of Davidson’s performance. Like Bill Murray, he often seems to be both in and out of the scene at the same time. Apatow lets him stay in his comfort zone with multiple scenes where he serves as the peanut gallery, standing apart from the action and commenting on it. But the director also trusts his leading man to deliver on the film’s big emotional beats, and unlike Big Time Adolescence, which leaned on Davidson’s co-stars in such moments, here Apatow frequently gives Davidson opportunity to show he can handle the job. He won’t win an Oscar, but he never sinks it either. Grading on the extremely generous curve of comedians turned actors, he’s somewhere in between Jerry Seinfeld and Will Ferrell.
In his screen roles as in his stand-up, Davidson’s star image is of a sarcastically chipper guy who doesn’t really care too much about anything. That’s the kind of thing that’ll be hard to adapt to different types of roles, especially ones where he has a less personal connection to the material. But as prior SNL stars have shown us, lack of range is not always a handicap for comedians, who can often get by on quite a while playing themselves. If King of Staten Island doesn’t cement Pete Davidson as a movie star, at the very least it proves he makes a fine Pete Davidson. For more answers, let’s check back in after his next project — Suicide Squad 2.