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The King of Staten Island (2020)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

Grief has a strange ability to alter the way we look at everything around us.  When my dad died, I remember how different it felt to go home.  Evidence of him was strewn everywhere, like relics at an archaeological dig:  A list of numbers sat next to the phone, highlighting a series of conversations that would never happen.  His dirty clothes filled the hamper.  The radio was tuned to his favorite country station.  It almost felt like he’d just stepped out for groceries.  Almost.  I couldn’t escape the thought that his bed would eventually get made.  The radio dial would move.  Everything he was would slowly fade like an old newspaper.  In that moment, my feeling of loss was truly immeasurable.

Eight days after I lost my dad, Pete Davidson lost his.  Scott Davidson was a firefighter who was racing into the wreckage of the World Trade Center when it came down around him.  Pete was seven years old.  In the years that followed, Pete would channel his depression and grief into humor, eventually making it all the way to Saturday Night Live.  Despite his success, Pete’s childhood trauma has acted like a riptide, perpetually threatening to pull him out to sea.

Here then, is The King of Staten Island, which serves as a kind of biographical therapy.  It follows the same track that 8 Mile did for Eminem:  The movie takes Pete Davidson and moves him into an alternate reality, one where tragedy has rendered him physically and spiritually inert.  Like B-Rabbit, success for this version of Pete will be measured in inches, instead of miles.  In this process, the actual Pete Davidson gets to untangle his feelings of pain and guilt.

Davidson’s Scott is a professional loafer, smoking weed and playing video games until the days start to blur together.  He’s 24, still lives with his exasperated mom (Marisa Tomei), and watches with a shrug as his little sister (Maude Apatow) heads off to college.  Scott harbors a dream of running his own tattoo parlor/restaurant, but he lacks even a molecule of initiative to get it off the ground.  Everybody likes and cares about Scott, but they don’t even bother to set a low bar for him.  They’ve put the bar away in storage.

Scott’s world quakes to the core when his mom lands herself a boyfriend.  Ray (Bill Burr) is a brusque, blue-collar dude who quickly butts heads with the freewheeling Scott.  What’s worse, Ray is a firefighter, the very same occupation that claimed the life of Scott’s dad.  Ray’s presence opens old wounds for Scott, prompting him to try and split up the new couple.

Most of what follows involves Scott trying to get a grip on who he is, while also stepping out of the long shadow of his father’s legacy.  Davidson, who also co-wrote the script, does a great job of form-tackling his own demons, while also bringing raw emotion to his performance.  You’ll root for Scott to get his shit together, even as his screw-ups gradually grow in scale.  Most of the rest of the movie belongs to Burr, who hides a teddy bear within his hard-ass fireman.  Tomei is good, and Steve Buscemi brings surprising warmth to a glorified cameo appearance, but this movie catches fire when Davidson and Burr share the screen.

Staten Island‘s only flaw–and it’s a humdinger–will feel familiar to anybody who’s followed director Judd Apatow’s previous work:  His movies play out like the barfly who doesn’t–or won’t–acknowledge that last call was half an hour ago.  Staten Island clocks in at 136 minutes, and it starts sucking wind somewhere in the second act.  We get too many characters who aren’t worth caring about, and few more gags than we need.  Less of both would’ve yielded an even stronger film.

As it is, Staten Island is a decent meditation on the nature of grief:  Any profound loss will stay with you for the duration of your life’s journey. The real issue is whether or not you allow it to sit in the driver’s seat.  My dad’s clothes eventually got put away, or donated.  His bed was made.  The King of Staten Island does its best work when it shows us a young man’s realization that moving on doesn’t have to mean forsaking or forgetting.  If anything, living your life brings honor to the departed.

136 min.  R.

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