Saturday, June 13, 2020


Judd Apatow’s The King of Staten Island is another R-rated comedy about a man-child shuffling slowly toward self-improvement — but, true to Apatow at his best, it’s an affecting, funny one that rings with well-earned truth and sentiment. He knows what his imitators—so many we’re now well past the other side of the pale copies flooding theaters after his 2007 smash Knocked Up —have rarely been able to figure out. In order to make this plot work, we need duration and specificity, the stuff of James L. Brooks or Cameron Crowe or Mike Nichols when their dramedies are really cooking. Apatow can have that same sensitive touch, the confidence to let scenes and plot threads stretch out and amble along, and the wisdom to work closely with his actors to generate the kind of perfect hand-in-glove fit of role and performer. This new work is his best film since 2009's Funny People, that wise, bitter, rambling, melancholic movie that gave Adam Sandler his best role playing a big comedy star whose silly movies don’t quite feed his soul the way a happier life would. Now Staten Island takes Pete Davidson—the current SNL star whose painfully confessional "Weekend Update" standup bits are sometimes as awkwardly funny as his acting in the (admittedly often terribly written) sketches is occasionally cringeworthy—and makes with him his finest role.

The focus is on an emotionally stunted 24-year-old high-school dropout stoner whose deep discomfort with his own feelings and dizzyingly low self-esteem leads him into standoffish encounters with everyone he knows and loves. And those doesn't, too. He can’t handle change well, and therefore hopes by keeping his ambition low and resisting big life moments — relationships, graduations, moving out, getting work, seeing his family members grow — he’ll avoid that pain. When he was seven years old, his firefighter dad died on the job. Davidson vividly plays this pain behind the arrested adolescence; he’s prickly, sometimes slyly charming, often zoned out, but always fragile and clenched. Apatow, who co-wrote with Davidson and Dave Sirus, allows him to start in a truly dismal place, and lets the film stretch to over two hours, generously granting this troubled person the patience and space to slowly, painfully turn a corner in his life. That Davidson draws upon elements of his own life story to make up this character is surely part of what gives it the spark of realism to the character’s psychology, which in turn allows us to understand all the more acutely from where he’s coming. It’s no spoiler to say the young man’s life is not totally solved in the end. But we can hope it’s enough of a start that he’ll believe it. And because we spend so long with him and the cast of characters around him, we can start to believe it ourselves.

The movie has the typically Apatowian character-driven ear for long, semi-improvised scenes that build up rapport between characters, and the sweetness that cuts the vulgarity. Ostensibly a comedy, it’s perhaps the least interested in punchlines of any of his films. It’s funny in the way life is, accidentally in fumbling torrents of awkward tension, or sweetly in characters’ joshing connections, or in the absurdity of escalating bad decisions. It accommodates different moods, and approaches with tenderness its characters flaws. (There’s a sequence in a pharmacy at the midpoint that I saw as Apatow’s version of the Safdie brothers’ sense of bleakly comic anxiety in films like Uncut Gems and Good Time, but with a kinder view of his characters' fates.) The slowly developed throughlines involve Davidson’s character’s attempts to find a life he’ll be okay with living. An early moment in which he casually talks about killing himself is harrowingly believable. So his often inadvertent betterment process involves hanging with a posse of ne’er-do-well drug dealer friends (Ricky Velez, Lou Wilson, and Moises Arias), and a longtime girl friend (Bel Powley) he, much to her frustration, hesitates to make official. Even more fraught is his reaction to his family dynamics, as his younger sister (Maude Apatow) goes away to college, and his lonely mother (Marisa Tomei) finally starts dating again after 17 years of widowhood. The new man (Bill Burr) is also a fireman, a source of obvious tension for the young man who has yet to process his father’s death. Though he’s scarred over with hard edges and surly insults—not to mention the cavalcade of scribbled tattoos over his body— this death is still a raw emotional wound that bleeds easily with little prodding.

It’s the way Apatow and Davidson let the totally zonkered futility of his emotional state in the early passages play so unvarnished and uncomfortable, even in the context of a tone that accommodates bursts of laughs, that somehow can draw in a sympathetic audience even as his behavior clearly pushes people in his life away. His mother and sister worry about him, his mother’s new beau gingerly tests out possible avenues for bonding while trying to avoid getting hurt, or messing up his potential new relationship. Eventually, there’s room for growth, but the length of the film, and the willingness to let the plot wander, following characters not on one specific, over-determined arc, but on a winding path that maybe, just maybe bring them to slightly happier places, feel so full and finely observed. It doesn’t race to big gags or push hard to make recurring bits. It is light and weighty, an unhurried, confidently close film that builds to sentimental moments and earns them by playing them softly, and putting in the work building characters we can care about and believe in. It’s the sort of movie where we can start to anticipate—and dread—characters’ reactions to new variables, and can breathe a sigh of relief when they make a better choice, or smile as they find new comfort in a new task, an unexpected source of accomplishment and growth, or even just a late-night singalong where they all realize they don’t know the words but sing at the top of their lungs anyway. And isn’t that what making something of your life is all about?

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