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Judd Apatow is the king of telling comics’ stories

Director Judd Apatow (center) with star Pete Davidson (left) on the set of "The King of Staten Island."
Director Judd Apatow (center) with star Pete Davidson (left) on the set of "The King of Staten Island."Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures via AP

I was avoiding “The King of Staten Island” because I’m not especially drawn to Pete Davidson’s comedy. When he does his affectless Chad character on “Saturday Night Live,” he makes me laugh, but most of his other work on the show, particularly during the Weekend Update segments, has left me cold.

But I wound up loving him and the movie, and I’m officially in awe of the ways that Judd Apatow, as a writer, director, and/or producer, is able to transform other comics’ material — usually a mix of their lives and their jokes — into full-length stories. He knows how to turn shtick — he has done it with Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Pete Holmes — into mainstream and often relatable movies and TV shows. And he has given big breaks to and mentored many fine performers, including Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps.


For “The King of Staten Island,” Apatow helped reshape Davidson’s life story — his father was a firefighter who died on 9/11 — into something moving, wise, and accessible to all. Davidson’s Scott, 24, also lost his firefighter father at an early age, but there’s no 9/11, and the special weight it holds in the national imagination, to distract. He still lives with his mother, in a state of stasis, but his life — unhappy, bored, cranky — get shaken up when his younger sister goes to college and his mother (Marisa Tomei) starts dating another firefighter (Bill Burr).

On one level, the movie is a coming-of-age-late story, with Scott suddenly forced to pull his life together and find some dreams. On another level, it’s a pathos-filled portrait of a man who hasn’t dealt with the loss of his father. Many years have passed, but Scott is still sitting on unresolved sorrow and bitterness. He has never fully dealt with the biggest, most painful event in his life, and that has kept him from moving forward. Fortunately, it’s never too late to do the work. Grief doesn’t disappear after a certain amount of time; it just hides behind other things.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.