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Pete Davidson Is Gonna Break Our Hearts

In his Netflix stand-up special ‘Alive From New York’ and the indie comedy ‘Big Time Adolescence,’ the tabloid ‘SNL’ star gives us two helpings of his troubled, compelling persona. Is his arrested development permanent?

At one point in Big Time Adolescence, Mo (Griffin Gluck), a sweet and sensitive teenager, is forced to defend his best friend Zeke, a going-nowhere twentysomething who’s mostly interested in video games and weed. (Also, he’s kind of a dick.) What does Mo, a good kid with smarts and ambition, see in this loser? All Mo can do is shrug: “He’s a nice guy once you get to know him.”   

We’ve all got that one buddy who’s a little iffy — that pal who, if we didn’t have a long history with him, we’d probably dislike, too. And yet, we stubbornly see past his flaws to focus on the decent human being who’s there underneath. But is that us rationalizing because we don’t want to admit what’s obvious to everyone else? Or does our friend really have a good heart?

This Friday was supposed to be one of the biggest days of Pete Davidson’s life. His much-anticipated starring vehicle The King of Staten Island, a semiautobiographical comedy about a young man who’s adrift, inspired by Davidson’s own life, was directed and co-written by Judd Apatow and set to be the opening-night world premiere at South by Southwest. The festival’s cancelation due to coronavirus concerns has delayed the movie’s unveiling, but even so, Davidson has been in the public eye a lot lately. 

In Big Time Adolescence, which opens Friday before landing on Hulu on March 20th, he plays Zeke — quite well, actually — and he’s also recently debuted a Netflix stand-up special, Alive From New York. No one’s seen The King of Staten Island yet, but it seems to be in keeping with the other two projects, which actively test our tolerance for a guy who can’t get out of his own way. I don’t know the 26-year-old comic personally, but after watching him on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere for years — and having seen Big Time Adolescence and Alive From New York — I feel a lot like Mo. The onscreen Davidson makes me want to defend his failings, even if I also worry about him and acknowledge that I’m grateful I don’t have people like him in my real life. 

Big Time Adolescence is mostly a familiar coming-of-age tale — nice suburban kid gets some life lessons about first love and the madness of the adult world — but its one intriguing twist is how it assigns a wholly inappropriate role model/older-brother figure to Mo in the form of Zeke. Still, we understand their bond: Years earlier, Zeke dated Mo’s older sister Kate (Emily Arlook), and Mo would often hang out with them, looking up to Zeke, who seemed way cooler than anybody else in this boy’s sheltered life. When Kate dumped Zeke, the two guys remained close — Zeke liked mentoring the kid, and Mo loved being around someone so confident who gave zero fucks. Soon, a friendship forged. Never mind that Zeke is a jobless college dropout who imparts terrible dating advice. (He’s a big believer that you should ignore a girl once she starts liking you, just so you can have the upper hand.) But the impressionable Mo doesn’t care — he loves his fucked-up friend, even if that means Zeke gets him into serious trouble by convincing the kid that selling pot to his classmates will be a great way to make money. 

From his first SNL appearance in 2014, Davidson has radiated a big-goofy-kid energy, his glazed-over eyes and stoner smile exuding boyish charm. (It was only later that we’d learn that he had another big energy as well.) Where most SNL cast members are polished — they’re expert impressionists, dazzling multi-talents or natural showmen — Davidson’s shtick is that he’s a total mess. Early on, it almost seemed like he wasn’t even a professional comic but, rather, some bizarre prank Lorne Michaels had foisted upon the American public. We’re all familiar with anti-humor, but Davidson was something different, treating his Weekend Update appearances like his firing was imminent, giving off this fascinating mixture of nerves, resignation, insecurity and chip-on-his-shoulder petulance. He was juvenile and half-hearted — and often very funny in an off-the-cuff way — but there was also this weird vulnerability to him. Davidson felt like an overgrown kid — immature, but also someone you felt oddly protective of. 

Of course, that rawness was also mixed with his candor about his struggles with depression and borderline personality disorder, occasionally coming on Weekend Update to inform viewers when he was heading to rehab. Outside of the show, Davidson’s rep as a troubled figure grew: His high-profile relationship with Ariana Grande went disastrously, and anybody closely associated with the phrase “butthole eyes” has to endure daily indignities that you and I will never experience. To a degree, I tend to feel sympathy for celebrities — sure, they’re rich and famous, but they’re also often fighting unhappiness and private demons, which all the money and notoriety in the world can’t fix — and I found myself rooting for Davidson, even when he wasn’t particularly hilarious. He just seemed like a damaged soul who was hurting.

I don’t expect everyone to feel the same about a guy who’s been lumped into the recent scumbro scene, and Alive From New York certainly won’t help my case. This very mediocre stand-up set, like Davidson’s Weekend Update appearances, is thick with an air of bratty, unfocused self-indulgence. Looking uncomfortable dressed up in a baggy suit, Davidson touches on some of the topics you’d assume he would — his breakup with Grande, what it’s like to be described as having a big dick — but, as always, he feels like he doesn’t entirely want to be there. His attitudes about women can be as crass as Zeke’s — chicks have a hard time cumming, amirite?!? — and when he complains about the double-standards between straight men and gay men in their levels of physical contact with straight women, you’ll struggle to remember why you gave Davidson the benefit of the doubt in the first place.

But, as is also often the case with Davidson, he then finds a way to win you back. When he recounts his time dating Grande and laments being unprepared for the media scrutiny — “I didn’t know about the picture thing,” he says, “if I knew about that, I would have seen a dermatologist before I started dating her” — he sounds like every picked-on, insecure kid who ever unsuccessfully dated above his station. Davidson comes across as prickly in the special, but there’s a puppy-dog softness to his delivery that suggests someone who’s trying not to cry. (The headline to New York Times critic Jason Zinoman’s review of Alive From New York gets it right: “Pete Davidson’s New Special Seems Like It Could Use a Hug.”) He doesn’t talk about addiction or depression because he knows we know, and that unspoken fragility hangs over the entire special. He mumbles punch lines, has a nervous tic where he self-consciously giggles during the quiet moments, and gives off the impression that he’s still in the midst of a tough stretch. With anybody else, this would all be pretty insufferable. But Davidson has made his faults and demons part of his relationship with us. It’s almost like he doesn’t have to be funny — we just want to make sure he’s okay.

That same tension pervades Davidson’s performance in Big Time Adolescence, which is very much about Mo learning that his best friend is weighing him down. Zeke has few redeeming qualities. He still occasionally hooks up with Kate, even though she’s got a boyfriend, and he seems incapable of committing to anything, whether it’s a woman or a future. He’s one of those guys who’s decided that the game is rigged, so why bother taking anything seriously? And as the movie rolls along, it becomes clear that Zeke doesn’t necessarily want to be an older brother to this young man — he just wants to indoctrinate Mo into his cynical, defeatist mindset as a way to justify his own self-loathing.   

Davidson has never impressed me much as an actor, but in Big Time Adolescence he channels a bit of Robert Pattinson’s slimy charm from Good Time, a movie that Davidson famously freaked about out when he was on The Tonight Show in 2018. The comic loved the Safdie brothers’ 2017 thriller so much that, although he was on the talk show to promote his own movie, Set It Up, he spent most of his time telling the audience — and Pattinson, who was sitting next to him to promote an entirely different movie — how great Good Time is. This is the sort of late-night strangeness we just don’t get anymore. And Davidson was absolutely in his element amidst the chaos.

Big Time Adolescence is nowhere near as good as Good Time, but Davidson demonstrates an ability, similar to Pattinson, to get us interested in someone who should repel us. There’s a wounded quality to Zeke, and while the film doesn’t supply us with much of the guy’s backstory, we infer that he hasn’t had the easiest time in life. (Zeke may only be in his 20s, but Davidson’s sad eyes suggest he’s seen a lot of misery and disappointment.) That’s not an excuse for Zeke’s behavior — just as Davidson’s struggles (and the fact that he lost his dad in 9/11) shouldn’t automatically absolve him — but it’s nonetheless a mitigating factor in the way we view the character. Zeke is probably an asshole, but Davidson elicits pity for a young man still not fully formed who’s trying to pull himself together. Perhaps Zeke will never be an upstanding citizen, but maybe there’s hope that he could end up being better than he is now. 

Apatow was recently on Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, and Davidson came up in the conversation. O’Brien mentioned that he had talked to John Mulaney, who’s Davidson’s longtime friend, and said that Mulaney described his pal as “like a young Sinatra. Like, if you see footage of Sinatra in 1944, Sinatra has this kind of… it’s slightly twitchy but menacing but also vulnerable — it’s this whole package. You just go, ‘Who is that guy?’” Apatow chuckled, and then he said this about his King of Staten Island star:

“Well, [Davidson] is one of those people, he doesn’t know how to not be completely raw and honest and tell you exactly what’s in his head at any moment. There’s just no censor whatsoever. It’s just a live feed from his brain. … It makes his acting and his comedy, like, really immediate and funny. I, actually, think of him more, in a way, as an expression of a lot of the way kids feel today. There’s a lot of anxiety and pressure and depression, and they’re struggling in a way that’s different than we did as kids. It’s hard to know exactly what the source of it is, but he feels it probably more than most people because he’s gone through more than most people. But I think people relate to this vibration he puts off, which is ‘I’m struggling, I’m trying to laugh and have fun and be a good guy, but it’s hard. Like, life’s hard, and I’m really trying to figure it out.’ And I think that’s the way a lot of kids feel.”

In other words, Davidson’s a nice guy once you get to know him. With Alive From New York and Big Time Adolescence — whether as himself or as a fictional character — he challenges our hesitation about embracing him, which we do perhaps despite ourselves. Is he a jerk or misunderstood? Is he going to grow out of this very public adolescent fog, or is he going to break our heart? What makes his comedy and his acting so oddly poignant is that, years after Pete Davidson launched onto the scene, we still don’t know those answers. And yet we keep watching.