Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) is a loser who's always apologizing, even when he's alone. ("I'm sorry," he mumbles after nearly hitting another car on the highway.) Scott has much to feel bad about. He's a high school dropout with ADD; he's on antidepressants; and he smokes pot virtually every waking hour. He's a guy who just can't cope. With anything.
In "The King of Staten Island," a sweet, funny and moving new film by Judd Apatow, we quickly gather that Scott is also an emotional cripple. He sleeps with Kelsey (Bel Powley), a girl he's known since grade school, but she's just a comfortable part of his life furniture. ("You deserve somebody better than me," he tells her. "I feel bad you don't think you're great," she says wistfully.)
At age 24, Scott is still cluttering up the life of his widowed mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), with whom he continues to live in the much-derided New York borough of Staten Island ("the only place New Jersey looks down on," he says). On her way out the door to start college, his sister, Claire (Maude Apatow, the director's daughter, ever better) tells her hyper-needy brother, "I was ignored my entire life because of you."
The movie was written by Davidson, Apatow and "Saturday Night Live" veteran Dave Sirus, and it's at least semi-autobiographical. Like Scott, Davidson is a Staten Island native with a heavy tattoo habit (Scott toys with the idea of one day opening a "tattoo restaurant"). And like Scott's father, Davidson's late father, also named Scott, was a firefighter (he died on 9/11). I don't know if Davidson spent a lot of time smoking dope with his layabout friends in his mom's basement, but who would be surprised if he did?
The picture doesn't expend much effort trying to make Scott likable. He's a self-absorbed pain in the neck with nothing positive to say about anybody or anything. His inevitable journey to redemption is launched with a jolt when his mom — who has maintained a living room shrine to her departed husband for the last 17 years — suddenly takes up with a new man, a mustachioed divorcé named Ray (Bill Burr), who also happens to be a firefighter. When Margie tells Scott it really is time for him to find a place of his own, Scott flies into a bratty rage and determines to scuttle this unexpected romance. Along the way, he gets involved in a wildly inept burglary, eventually becomes homeless and finally finds sanctuary in a local fire station, where he's taken in by the crew and their sweet-natured chief (Steve Buscemi, himself a onetime firefighter who pulled long rubble-clearing shifts after 9/11).
The movie has the usual incidental pleasures of an Apatow film: gleaming cinematography (by Oscar winner Robert Elswit) and a glowingly humane approach to its characters. The picture's key asset is a cast that's impeccable from top to bottom. Marisa Tomei brings a twinkly, hope-stoked spirit to the part of a woman who has given up on finding happiness a second time in her life but then, out of nowhere, suddenly hears it beckoning. Bel Powley is both smart-mouthed ("You look like you have a disease but you don't know it yet") and touching as a girl who can't understand why the guy she has always loved can't find it in his heart to love her back. And standout Bill Burr pulls off the shape-shifting feat of seeming at first like a perfect match for Margie but then appearing to morph into something else altogether.
Davidson himself delivers an unstrained star turn, enlarging on his lovable-goofball "SNL" persona to add nuances of grief and depression that are fresh and affecting. When he finally does leave "SNL" — something he has publicly mused about lately — he won't have far to look for new gigs.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.