'The King of Staten Island' shines

Courtesy PhotoPete Davidson and Steve Buscemi star in 'The King of Staten Island.'

Judd Apatow’s comedies tend to be at their best when they’re about not just redemption, but the hard work of coming to terms with life as it is before moving forward into real change. That sounds really heavy, because it is, but when Apatow is operating at his best, his tales of charismatic manchildren who find a way to grow up are bittersweet, sometimes painfully funny odes to personal growth. 

Ironically, one of the criticisms often lobbed at Apatow (by myself and others) is that he himself has had a somewhat hard time growing beyond the meat of the movies that made him one of the most respected filmmakers in comedy. At a certain point, the “immature guy learns to be better” thing starts to stale a little bit if you’re not careful, and thankfully for all of us, Apatow has taken that lesson to heart. His most recent films are more collaborative, less dependent on simply getting his comedy pals into a room to riff together, and more focused on a wider experience. That means that, even when he does return to familiar turf, he’s doing it via new and refreshing avenues.

Which brings us to “The King of Staten Island,” Apatow’s latest directorial effort, which stars and is co-written by Pete Davidson, a stand-up comedian and “Saturday Night Live” star with his fair share of very public personal struggles. For this film, Apatow serves as co-writer, director, and perhaps comedy elder statesman, while Davidson gets to steer the narrative through his semi-autobiographical lens. The result is a film greater than the sum of its parts, a story about learning to be a man that both leans into and subverts typical cinematic expectations when it comes to masculinity.

Scott (Davidson) has never been able to get his act together. His father, a New York City firefighter, died when he was young, leaving him to be cared for by an overworked but loving mother (Marisa Tomei). While his sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is heading off to college, Scott uses the death of his father as a crutch for his own emotional immaturity, largely because he’d rather spend his days getting high with his friends and practicing to be a tattoo artist than actually doing anything with his life. Then the upheaval begins when one of Scott’s ventures gone wrong brings him into contact with Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter who soon takes a liking to Scott’s mother. As his world shifts around him in ways he never expected, Scott must learn to navigate a new normal, one that might finally require him to push beyond the bubble he’s created for himself.

As with nearly all of his other films, “The King of Staten Island” retains a certain leisurely pace recognizable to any longtime viewers of Apatow movies. His films aren’t urgent in a narrative sense. They’re not rushing to make a point. They often revolve around a group of friends just hanging out, talking about life and relationships until eventually something gives and the plot moves forward. With this film, though, there are signs that Apatow has, if not grown beyond this impulse, at least found new ways to express it. Visually, he’s a more mature filmmaker than he was back in the days of “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” which is particularly important in establishing the sense of place this film needs. Characters within this story frequently talk about how Staten Island feels static to them, unchanging, in need of some people who understand how remarkable it can truly be. In taking on this film as a director, Apatow has that job, and he manages to imbue the borough with a certain sense of messy grace.

That same sense of disorganized but endearing grace and beauty carries over into the characters, almost all of whom are proving resistant to change in some ways. The screenplay – from Davidson, Apatow, and Dave Sirus – understands this in a way many comedy films never quite seem to, and the result is a remarkably detailed piece of thematic writing. Davidson understands grief and the resulting fallout better than many – his father was a firefighter who died on 9/11 – and he’s clearly pouring every ounce of that sensitivity into this story in a way that never feels cheap or exploitative. There’s a rawness to “The King of Staten Island” that makes it feel eternally genuine, but there’s also a sense of maturity that comes from years of processing this stuff, and it shines through.

As an actor, Davidson has proven again that he’s adept at playing an emotionally stunted yet somehow earnest young man trying to find the right path for himself. Scott frequently says some version of “I’m a mess” or “I don’t have my life together” as a way to bail out of taking responsibility, and Davidson plays that with a sense of tremendous empathy while also finding ways to be slyly funny about the whole arc of his character. He might not be a star who can do anything but play versions of himself, but the film still proves he’s a star. Of course, having a tremendous ensemble anchored by Burr, Tomei, and the great Steve Buscemi doesn’t hurt either.

“The King of Staten Island” is a triumph, a film that proves that both Apatow and Davidson are capable of growing beyond the initial stages of their careers in a way that doesn’t change who they essentially are as storytellers. It’s a movie full of heart and surprising wisdom, and it’s at its best when it reminds us that sometimes the most important thing a person can be is vulnerable.

‘The King of Staten Island’ is now streaming everywhere on-demand movies are sold.