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Monday, June 22, 2020

The King of Staten Island

Director Judd Apatow, for better or worse, always tries to find the pain behind the laughs in his comedies, and in his latest film, The King of Staten Island, he really dives deep into the life and past of his star and co-writer, Pete Davidson.  Best known for being the youngest member of the current Saturday Night Live cast, Davidson loosely based the screenplay on his personal struggle of trying to find his place in the world, and moving on beyond the death of his father, who was a firefighter who was killed on 9/11 when Pete was just seven-years-old.

Even though not everything in the movie is based on real life, you constantly feel that Pete Davidson has lived through a lot of the struggles that his character experiences.  These include a general sense of aimlessness (he spends a majority of his time on the couch, watching TV or smoking weed), mental illness, and even suicidal depression, such as in the opening scene where he is driving down the road with his eyes closed.  This is a movie that offers plenty of big laughs, but is also not afraid to explore the darker reaches of its main character, and it's all the more successful because of that.  With this film, Davidson not only proves himself a comic leading man, but a fine actor in general.  Just watch his face in the scene where he's in the back seat of his car, listening to other people talking about how life has passed him by.  It's a genuinely fine performance.

His character, Scott Carlin, is a 24-year-old layabout who openly admits there's something wrong with him, but he doesn't seem to be in any hurry to turn his life around.  His goal is to be a tattoo artist, with the ultimate dream being to open the world's first tattoo restaurant, where people can dine while they get fresh ink on their bodies.  Just like Davidson in real life, Scott has never recovered over the loss of his firefighter dad when he was a child, and is not afraid to share his opinion about his father and his line of work with others.  In Scott's mind, firemen should not have children, in case they don't come home.  That way, nobody has to go through the feelings that Scott has had to deal with.  He spends most of his time with his small gang of friends in a basement, getting stoned while watching The Purge or playing video games.  Scott sees nothing wrong with this life.  As he says, "I like it here.  It's safe".

It's a common theme in Apatow films for the main character to be suffering from some kind of arrested development, and for their main pastime to be smoking pot.  After all, he is the filmmaker who made Seth Rogen a star.  But The King of Staten Island obviously comes from a much more personal place, so it doesn't feel quite so rehashed.  Yes, the filmmaker is covering material he's mined before, but just like always, there's a lot of truth and genuine heartfelt emotion behind the crude laughs.  Scott lives at home with his mother Margie (a wonderful Marisa Tomei), who is having a hard time dealing with the fact that her youngest daughter (Maude Apatow, daughter of Judd) is heading off for college, as well as with the fact that Scott is probably never going to move on and get his act together.  She puts on a brave smile when her son tells her that he will never leave her side.  Margie has had to put her life on hold to raise these kids on her own, and now she fears that she's going to be just as stuck as Scott seems to be.

That all changes when she meets Ray Bishop (Bill Burr), a firefighter himself who comes bundled with a sarcastic ex-wife (Pamela Adlon), two young kids, and a possible gambling problem.  They connect over a string of dates, and soon Margie is toying with the idea of a relationship.  Scott makes his hatred of this idea and of Ray in general well known from the moment she tells him.  In fact, seeing his mother around the guy only intensifies the memories of his father.  In a smart move, the film follows Scott's eventual maturing and thawing of his emotions, but in a way that does not seem forced, nor does the movie end with everything tied up.  We see Scott bond with Ray's kids during the walks he takes with them to school, and he even eventually warms up a little to Ray and his fellow firefighters, one of whom (played by Steve Buscemi, a former real-life firefighter) helps Scott understand that his father was more than just a tragic hero.

I appreciated the honesty and the respect that the screenplay had for these characters.  This is a movie made up of little victories and moments, not grand reconciliations and conquering of personal past demons while the music swells on the soundtrack.  Like a lot of Apatow's previous films, this movie gives his entire cast moments to stand out, both comically, and in this case, dramatically.  It's also not afraid to show us the flaws of its characters.  Scott is aimless and immature at times, Ray has a temper and maybe his ex-wife despises him for a reason, Margie has probably let her son get away with too much over the years.  The fact that this movie is able to focus on both the pain and the humor of these kind of situations, sometimes both in the same scene, is its strongest aspect in my eyes.  I also greatly appreciated the tone that the film ends on, with general happiness, but a lot of doors open and questions about where these people will go remaining.


The King of Staten Island does run a little too long at 135 minutes, which is another trait most of Apatow's films share.  But this time, it didn't bother me as much.  These are people that I wanted to spend a lot of time with, and was happy for the opportunity to do so.  It's definitely the director's best film in a while, and it also marks Pete Davidson as a strong leading man who is not afraid to show the worst of his character (or himself) to an audience.

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