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Judd Apatow returns to theatrical form for The King of Staten Island

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Pete Davidson's portrayal of a character who is essentially himself is his best work thus far.

"If you have money, why would you ever live in Staten Island?" — Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson)

In The King of Staten Island, Scott Carlin is a barely functional, jobless, perpetually stoned, apparently aimless 24-year-old who still lives with his mom (Marisa Tomei).

He’s subject to more neuroses and conditions than can easily be catalogued, and nearly everyone in Scott's life — from his little sister (Maude Apatow) to his maybe-girlfriend (Bel Powley) — has about reached their limit with him, until a chance encounter with a firefighter named Ray (Bill Burr) jolts Scott out of his uncertain existence, as Ray enters into a relationship with Scott's mom.

Scott's dad was a firefighter who died when he was seven, and it's his grief, coupled with abandonment issues, that prevent him from forming deep attachments, which still plague Scott into his adulthood. Perhaps not so coincidentally, some similar circumstances describe star Peter Davidson's life. Davidson's father, also a firefighter, died on 9/11 when Davidson, who co-wrote the screenplay, was seven, and he's suffered from similar anxiety.

Davidson, a Saturday Night Live cast member, has appeared in a handful of other films, but his portrayal of a character who is essentially himself is his best work thus far — partly because he gets to play off wonderful talent in Tomei, Powley and Apatow.

Even so, the film's most powerful scenes are between Davidson and Burr — despite co-star Steve Buscemi's sly attempts to steal the whole film in a handful of scenes as Ray's firehouse captain; he becomes the movie's soul. Buscemi himself was a New York City firefighter in the '80s, and returned to his old precinct on 9/11 for a crucial day of service.

But it wasn't Davidson nor any of his co-stars who attracted me to this film. As is often the case for me, it was the director.

Judd Apatow is the architect of much of the seminal comedy of the early 21st century. Having directed movies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and This Is 40, and having produced and/or written others like Pineapple Express and Bridesmaids, Apatow's last big-screen directorial outing was 2015's Trainwreck. While he was producing for television, I anticipated Apatow's return to the venue where I like best to see him: major theatrical films.

Even though he's back to the long form I believe he was always destined for, and even though it concerns a theme common to many of his films — the trials of a perpetual Lost Boy who can't quite evolve into an adult — The King is Apatow's most atypical work. While there's serious considerations in all of his films, they remain comedies. The King isn't a comedy, though you may chortle at some of Scott's snark. In fact, the film only narrowly misses being a tragedy.

Though it's never slow or uninvolving, The King runs for 136 minutes, and it feels like 10 minutes somewhere could have gone away, and I know which sequence I'd cut: an interlude in which Scott dabbles with his street buds in some small-time larceny. It doesn't go anywhere, and it distracts from Davidson's interaction with his co-stars.

Even so, The King is a breakthrough vehicle for Davidson and one of Apatow's best works. If you're a fan, as I am, of Apatow's oeuvre, this is a must-see.

The King of Staten Island is available via video-on-demand.

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