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Josh Reviews The King of Staten Island

In Judd Apatow’s new film, The King of Staten Island, SNL’s Pete Davidson stars as Scott, who lives at home with his widowed mother.  Scott’s father was a firefighter, who died on the job when Scott was young.  Scott is content to live his slacker-ish life, smoking and drinking with his friends and dreaming of someday opening a tattoo shop-slash-restaurant.  But when his far-more put-together sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), goes off to college, and Scott’s mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) starts seeing another firefighter, Ray (Bill Burr), Scott’s life goes into a tailspin.

I’m a huge Judd Apatow fan.  I’ve been a fan ever since watching Paul Feig’s and his brilliant but short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, and Mr. Apatow’s follow-up (and also short-lived) series Undeclared.  I loved his phenomenal directorial debut film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and ever since then, a new Judd Apatow film has been a cause for excitement for me.  A hallmark of Mr. Apatow’s work has always been how he has balanced humor with real emotional pathos.  I think Mr. Apatow is one of the best comedic writers working today, and if he rested on that, I’m sure I’d still enjoy his work.  But Mr. Apatow has always used humor as a way of exploring his characters and searching for emotional truths.  This was evident (and important to the success of) the first two films Mr. Apatow wrote & directed, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, two films with an extraordinary laugh-per-second ratio.  With Funny People, Mr. Apatow shifted his approach slightly — his films were still extremely funny, but he grew more willing to allow the humor to take a back-seat for longer stretches in his films, and to allow the explorations of character and dramatic situations to step more into the forefront.  While I admit to a slight preference for his “earlier, funnier” movies, I’ve nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed Funny People, This is 40, Trainwreck, and now The King of Staten Island.  I have commented before how Mr. Apatow has developed, to my mind at least, into this generation’s James L. Brooks.  That is no small praise.

Whereas Mr. Apatow’s earlier work — and Funny People in particular — seemed to draw more from the Mr. Apatow’s personal life experiences, and those of his close friends, it’s been interesting to see how in recent years Mr. Apatow has used his approach to comedy and drama as a way to allow other performers to explore their lives and step into the limelight.  This was the case with Lena Dunham in her HBO show Girls (which Mr. Apatow Executive Produced), with Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, and now with Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island.

I’ve enjoyed Mr. Davidson’s work on SNL, but I wouldn’t say I was much of a fan.  But I was fascinated by the semi-autobiographical framework of The King of Staten Island (Mr. Davidson also lost his father at a young age, on 9/11, and he has struggled with depression) and I was quite impressed by the work Mr. Davidson did here.  I had no doubt in his comedic timing, and indeed Mr. Davidson is very funny in the film.  But I was surprised by how moved I was by the story of the lost young man, Scott, Mr. Davidson played in the film, and I was impressed by how naturalistic Mr. Davidson’s acting was.  He goes toe-to-toe with some strong acting powerhouses in this film (such as Marisa Tomei, Steve Buscemi, and Pamela Adlon), and I never for a second doubted the honesty of his performance.  Just as Trainwreck made me far more of a fan of Amy Schumer’s than I’d ever been before, I can now say that I’m a big fan of Pete Davidson’s!

Marisa Tomei has been a true movie star for decades, but despite that (or maybe because of it) she continues to impress me more and more with her work as she gets older.  Ms. Tomei has delivered some spectacular performances over the course of the past decade-plus (in films such as Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, The Wrestler, Cyrus, and of course I have loved her work as Aunt May in the MCU!).  She is absolutely dynamite here as Scott’s mother Margie.  I love that Mr. Apatow spent nearly as much time and attention on Margie’s story as on Scott’s, and Ms. Tomei beautifully realizes Margie’s inner life in a way that shines through the screen.

Bill Burr is a fantastic comedian, and I know he’s acted before, though I haven’t seen much of his work.  (Scrolling through an online list of his credits, it seems the only work of his that I’ve seen are his small rolls on Breaking Bad and The Mandalorian.)  So I was unprepared for how fantastic he is in this film!  He has a huge role in this film as Ray, the new man in Margie’s life (much to Scott’s dismay), and this is an almost completely dramatic role.  Mr. Burr absolutely smashes it out of the park.  I love Ray!  I love how carefully Mr. Apatow has written this character, and how delicately Mr. Burr moderated his performance.  Though Scott hates Ray right off the bat, Ray isn’t the one-dimensional cardboard cut-out that this type of character often is in movies.  Ray isn’t a villain.  He’s not a saint, either!  But he’s a good guy, and it’s fun to see the way the film allows the audience, and Scott, to slowly warm up to Ray as the film unfolds.

That’s the main trio of the film, but as always for Mr. Apatow’s projects, he has stuffed the film with a delightfully deep bench of supporting characters.  I was thrilled to see Pamela Adlon (whose brilliant show Better Things has made me love her forevermore) pop up as Ray’s ex-wife.  The great Steve Buscemi has a small but critical role as the elder statesman of the fire-crew with whom Ray works.  Mr. Buscemi has a few great jokes, but his main role in the film is to land a few critically important dramatic moments, and Mr. Buscemi is superb.  His character is wise and gentle, an unusual note for Mr. Buscemi to play, but he’s terrific.  That Mr. Apatow’s daughter Maude has a significant supporting role in the film as Scott’s sister Claire at first struck me as nepotism, but after two minutes I had no doubt that Ms. Apatow had earned her role fair and square.  She’s terrific as Claire!  Claire is likable while at the same time — like all the characters in this film — also feeling like a well-rounded human being.  We see her love for Scott and how he frustrates and angers her, and also how she fears for him.  I really liked the sibling bond that Ms. Apatow and Mr. Davidson developed — it really shines through and enhances the film.  I also quite enjoyed Bel Powley as Kelsey, the young woman with whom Scott has an on-again-off-again sort-of fling.  (After discovering that Ms. Powley was British after seeing the film, I was even more impressed by her work!  She nails that very-specific accent!)

Like most of Mr. Apatow’s films, The King of Staten Island is arguably 15-20 minutes too long.  Mr. Apatow’s films often have a somewhat meandering, shaggy-dog feel, because he seems to get such enjoyment out of allowing his actors to play, and to develop scenes and situations that are more about fleshing out their characters and the world than advancing any sort of over-all plot.  I always wonder if his films wouldn’t be stronger if they were more tightly edited and paced.  On the other hand, I never mind too much getting to spend a little bit of extra time with his characters, and the same is true here.  I could have happily spent even more time in the world of this film.

Frankly, the film’s only major flaw, for me, was the surprising choice never to circle the narrative back around to Scott’s almost suicide attempt while driving, which we see in the film’s opening sequence.  It’s a hell of a way to start the film; but I was never quite clear whether the rest of the film happened after those events, or if that was something we were being shown out of order.  Because that wasn’t clear, I assumed it was the later, and so I kept expecting the film to circle back around to what drove Scott to that moment.  I was surprised that the film didn’t do so; indeed, I don’t believe those events are ever referenced again.  It’s a pretty major matza ball to just leave lying out there.  That surprised me.

I quite enjoyed The King of Staten Island, and I recommend it.  I love the emotional maturity and sophistication in Mr. Apatow’s work these days.  I’ll admit: there’s nothing entirely revelatory here.  We’re well past the “wow” factor that Mr. Apatow’s films had back in the 40-Year-Old Virgin days, when his style felt so fresh and new for the movies.  There’s a comfortable familiarity now, for me, to Mr. Apatow’s general style and approach.  But I love that style and approach!  The King of Staten Island has some big laughs and some moving character moments.  It’s got some terrific comedic and dramatic performances by a great ensemble.  I don’t need anything more!

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