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Hail to ‘The King of Staten Island’

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Few filmmakers have had as outsized an influence on 21st century comedy as Judd Apatow. For over a decade, the Apatovian voice led the way, introducing us to the players who would define the genre for their generation. It was a comedy of youth, shaggy and unapologetic and inspiring to those who would follow.

It’s hard to believe that it has been five years since Apatow helmed a movie, but it’s true – his last directorial foray was the 2015 Amy Schumer vehicle “Trainwreck.” Perhaps he was simply waiting for the proper inspiration to get back into the saddle.

Said inspiration has apparently arrived in the form of Pete Davidson, who teamed up with Apatow and Dave Sirus to co-write “The King of Staten Island,” a film based in large part on Davidson’s own life. It’s an emotionally charged and honest offering, one driven by the real feelings at the heart of its semi-autobiographical story.

Davidson – who also stars – is a polarizing figure in a lot of ways, but love him or hate him, it’s difficult to deny the quality of his work here. Apatow lets the story do the heavy lifting as far as the laughs go, allowing the flat-out exceptional cast to bring forth the very genuine emotions at the heart of things. It is funny and touching and surprisingly moving, a much more warts-and-all glimpse of the arrested development that the director so excels at presenting.

Scott Carlin (Davidson) is a mid-20s slacker drifting through the world. He still lives in his Staten Island home with his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei, “Human Capital”) and his off-to-college sister Claire (Maude Apatow, TV’s “Hollywood”), spending most of his time with his childhood friends, smoking weed and generally not doing much of anything.

The defining incident of Scott’s life happened 17 years prior, when his firefighter father perished in a hotel fire trying to save some people. His dad’s death profoundly impacted his worldview and his attitude; that single event has essentially dictated his path ever since. He keeps everyone at arm’s length with defensive walls of snark and sarcasm; he won’t even allow his relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley, TV’s “The Morning Show”) to move past the “friends with benefits” stage.

But when Scott – an aspiring tattoo artist – takes an ill-advised needle to an underage kid, he winds up throwing his entire world into chaos. When angry dad Ray (Bill Burr, TV’s “F is for Family”) shows up at his door to demand satisfaction, he winds up meeting Margie – and there are sparks. For the first time in 17 years, Scott’s mom is getting back into the dating world.

As you might imagine, Scott is not happy.

What follows is an up-and-down maelstrom of positive and negative developments as Ray tries to connect with Scott even as Scott tries to undermine Ray. Scott’s struggles to make any kind of forward progress become more and more of a sticking point, frustrating and angering all of those around him and leading him to make a number of even more questionable decisions – decisions that could ultimately wind up ruining his life.

And all the while, Scott’s father continues to cast a long shadow with his absence – but with some help, Scott might just find a way to define himself.

Pete Davidson is an ideal muse for Judd Apatow – he’s just the sort of man-child whose stories Apatow loves to tell. And that’s what “The King of Staten Island” is, the story of a person who is chronologically a man and emotionally far from it. Apatow has excelled in presenting these figures for primarily comedic effect in the past – and this movie is definitely funny – but here, the humor is secondary to the very real emotional baggage that comes from never growing up, both in terms of the individual and of the people around them.

The film’s real-life inspiration certainly contributes to its heft – Davidson’s father Scott was a firefighter who perished during the events of 9/11 – and allows for a degree of pathos that Apatow’s work has occasionally approached but never before achieved. The Staten Island setting, the familial dynamics, the circle of sketchy friends – all of the humor and heart contained in this film is amplified by the truth ingrained within the narrative.

I’m still not convinced that Davidson is a good actor, but there’s no question that his last two projects – this one and Hulu’s “Big Time Adolescence” from earlier this year – have been aptly chosen. He’s once again playing a version of himself, allowing his antagonistic charisma and sketchball charm to do the heavy lifting. He’s undeniably engaging to watch and he has some incredible moments here; we’ll just have to see what happens if/when he ventures out of this narrow lane.

The supporting cast is stacked. Tomei is just incredible as Margie, bringing a Big Mom Energy to the table that is just a delight. She remains a gifted and sorely underrated performer. Maude Apatow is good as well; she’s not just here because her dad’s the director. Burr gives a broad and sturdy performance as Ray, encapsulating the essence of a certain kind of dude. Luke David Blumm and Alexis Rae Forlenza are wonderful as Ray’s young kids, as is Pamela Adlon as Ray’s ex.

There are also two ensembles within the ensemble that need to be addressed. First is Scott’s circle of friends, a crew that has been buddies since childhood. Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson and Moises Arias are Oscar, Richie and Igor, the EXACT dudes that a sketchy guy like Scott would pal around with. They are a killer quartet, brimming with the exact right kind of bro energy. Oh, and Powley epitomizes Staten Island across the board as Kelsey – she’s excellent.

The other collection is Ray’s firefighting crew. Steve Buscemi – a former real-life firefighter in his own right – is here, giving his usual exceptional performance. But the rest of the crew – played by Jimmy Tatro, Giselle King, John Sorrentino, Domenick Lombardozzi and Rafael Poueriet – also do a wonderful job in capturing the close-knit camaraderie that springs from sharing such an all-consuming vocation. Everything about their dynamic is packed with coarse charm and fraternal affection.

“The King of Staten Island” is funny and moving, a well-made comedy with heart that uses its real-life inspiration to tell an emotionally affecting story. Davidson is a different flavor of muse for Apatow, but that fundamental man-child quality is still very present. Thoughtful and engaging, it’s a wonderful and worthwhile addition to the Apatow filmography.

Hail to the king.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 14 June 2020 08:41

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