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‘The King of Staten Island’ Review: Pete Davidson Shines in Apatow’s Best Film Since ‘Funny People’

Pete Davidson plays a slightly fictional version of himself in a sweet and tender dramedy that clarifies what Apatow has always done best.

“The King of Staten Island”

Judd Apatow’s work bears any number of personal signatures, but it boils down to the two things he loves most of all: Overlong movies about overgrown man-children, and helping commercially unproven comedians become huge stars by making films and HBO shows in which they embody lightly fictionalized versions of themselves.

So while an 140-minute dramedy in which “SNL” breakout Pete Davidson essentially plays Dete Pavidson might sound like a risky gamble for a major studio to release at the height of the summer movie season (such as it is this year), Apatow would sooner cast Ivanka Trump as Paul Rudd’s next wife than miss out on the chance to work on a semi-autobiographical origin story with a tabloid-famous 25-year-old stoner who once bragged on national television about how he still lives with his mom. It would be like the Safdie brothers passing up an offer to direct the Pizza Rat biopic, or Nicolas Cage saying no to literally anything that his agent sends him. If Pete Davidson didn’t exist, Judd Apatow would’ve had to invent him.

And yet “The King of Staten Island” isn’t quite as obvious as it sounds on paper (even if it’s occasionally also more so). Teetering between self-parody and something truly beautiful, Apatow’s latest offers yet another shaggy portrait of permanent adolescence, but this one — his best film since 2009’s “Funny People” — helps make sense of why he always keeps going back to the same archetype.

Davidson portrays the most stunted Apatow protagonist so far, and so you might be surprised to discover that he’s at the center of Apatow’s most sober movie. Like Davidson — whose FDNY dad was killed trying to rescue people from the Marriott World Trade Center on 9/11 — Scott Carlin lost his father in a blaze when he was seven years old, and has basically been stuck in time ever since. Unlike Davidson, however, Scott (named after Davidson’s own father) doesn’t have comedy to give him a way out from his grief; his only ambition is to open a tattoo restaurant he dubs “Ruby Tattuesdays” (the name could be a joke, but the idea behind it is deadly serious). At least the film around him is carried by the same confessional brand of shrugged off humor that Davidson brings to “SNL,” like he’s bleeding out in open daylight and the joke is that everybody thinks it’s just a bit.

Scott lives in Staten Island with his celibate nurse mom Margie (an inevitable Marisa Tomei), his college-bound sister (Maude Apatow), and an unspecified mental illness that the movie treats with the kind of light touch that feels progressive by omission, at least after Scott almost kills some people in an opening scene car accident. When he’s not doing hit-and-runs on the highway, Scott spends his time getting high in the basement with his Apatowian crew of sweet-hearted stoner bros (Moisés Arias and Ricky Velez are the standouts), and secretly banging a proud local girl named Kelsey (an excellent, lived-in Bel Powley) who’s known Scott forever but still can’t understand how the sudden loss of his dad has left him too afraid to forge new relationships.

The inertia of it all seems to suit him well enough, until Scott tattoos a nine-year-old kid he met on the beach and the kid’s abrasive dad starts dating Scott’s mom. His name is Ray (a note-perfect Bill Burr), he’s angry and stunted in his own ways, and he’s a firefighter too. That detail doesn’t exactly seem to help Scott make peace with having a new man in his life.

From that simple and gently haunted premise, “The King of Staten Island” ambles forward with the same kind of languorous, James L. Brooks-inspired shuffle that Apatow keeps alive with his films. Even when the improv doesn’t earn a scene its length or an exchange fails to curl around the kind of hyper-quotable lines that made “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” to worm into your brain, the patience to live with these characters and follow them where the wind blows feels like a long-lost kind of love. (Apatow loves his characters just as much as they love each other, which allows him to texture the movie with genuine moments of hurt and betrayal.)

It helps that Davidson is a compulsively watchable screen presence, a scarecrow-sized open wound who wears his pain on the outside so that he doesn’t have to deal with it alone; the movie’s first big joke is about how unbothered Scott is when people ask him about his father’s death. Davidson may not be playing himself (though Scott definitely wears his wardrobe), and his range as an actor may not turn out to be as wide as his wingspan, but the numb vulnerability he shares here makes for a performance that might as well be seeping out of his skin.

(from left) Kelsey (Bel Powley) and Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) in The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow.

“The King of Staten Island”

Alison Cohen Rosa / Universal Pictures

The whole film, which Davidson co-wrote along with Apatow and Dave Sirus, is held together by the sense that Scott is watching it from the inside out. It’s as if he got stoned enough to realize that he’s in the middle of a Judd Apatow movie, and is just giggling at it along with the rest of us. That approach has a peculiar effect. On the one hand, Davidson is unlike any other actor of his generation; he’s as much Boris Karloff as he is Seth Rogen, and sometimes more so. And “The King of Staten Island” is all but his official life story.

On the other hand, he so closely resembles the lead characters of Apatow’s previous films that it can seem like the movie is just an old cocktail poured into a weird new glass. There’s a nagging sense that Apatow’s eye for unique new talent is offset by his inclination to smelt all of his discoveries into the same casing. The singular energy of Davidson’s shtick only highlights the formulaic nature of the story it’s applied to here. If the film isn’t totally undone by those irreconcilable energies — if it isn’t weighed down by the benign tension between a biographer and his subject — that’s only because the seriousness of Scott’s problems helps clarify why Apatow has always been drawn to people like him.

Apatow makes films about permanent adolescence because it’s really funny to watch a group of grown-ass men hot-boxing their entire lives while they invent a porn site that already exists, but “The King of Staten Island” reframes that whole sad cross-section of American men in a way that exposes its underlying emotional core. Watching Davidson walk Ray’s kids to school, rage at his mom for having sex with someone who isn’t his father, and even teeter on the brink of homelessness, it snaps into focus that Apatow’s movies aren’t about people who refuse to grow up so much as they’re about the foibles of existing in a society that forces everyone to exist at the same speed. They’re modern fables about white people who fall out of step with life’s treadmill and need some help to start moving forward again (systemic prejudices tend to deny people of color the same kind of forgiveness).

Life starts when it starts, it ends when it ends, and it doesn’t have much sympathy for anyone who doesn’t adhere to a certain timeline. You have sex for the first time in your teens or early 20s, or you’ll become a 40-year-old virgin. A baby gestates for a little over nine months at the longest, and you better be ready to deal with that shit by the time it arrives. You become an adult when you’re 18, even if a lingering childhood loss has left you unprepared for what comes next.

But people don’t become themselves at the same rate. Some progress slower, others skip a few steps and wind up too far ahead, while others — like Scott Carlin — are snagged on a trauma that keeps them stuck in place. Apatow’s characters aren’t bound together by their immaturity so much as they are by their shared feeling of being out of sync with the world around them, and by the mortal fear of failing to realign with their own potential.

“The King of Staten Island” might lack the lightning-in-a-bottle magic that made Apatow’s first movies such instant cultural touchstones, but this sweet film crystallizes the feeling of being too scared to escape your own shadow. Scott is afraid of caring about people that he might lose one day, but he’s also just as afraid of failing to live up to his hero dad’s legacy (“If you got to know him you’d realize he was the coolest guy ever and it would ruin the rest of your life,” he barks at his younger sister in one especially cutting scene).

He stays where he is because his mom’s basement is the only place he feels safe, and Staten Island — which “There Will Be Blood” cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots with a rough-and-tumble sense of latent possibility — becomes a symbol for his own self-defeated stubbornness. Kelsey dreams of becoming a city planner and making Staten Island the new Brooklyn, but Scott loves it for what it is; “this place is never gonna change,” he says, more as a personal affirmation than a lament.

But Ray, who sleeps at the firehouse with his buddies like it’s a blue-collar summer camp for single adults, has his own growing up to do, and the allowances that he and Scott learn to make for each other might be able to help them both find a way forward. As one character describes it, they just need to stop living their lives like they’re leaving food on the table. “The King of Staten Island” may not be the most flavorful thing that Apatow has ever served up, and it could be high time for him to consider a new recipe, but this wry and tender five-course meal of a movie still makes you glad that he’s not afraid to be himself — even when he’s telling someone else’s story.

Grade: B+

Universal Pictures will release “The King of Staten Island” on VOD on Friday, June 12.

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