At times, Judd Apatow seems like less of a director than a cinematic truffle pig who sniffs out special talents and brings them to light. As a filmmaker, he’s been a conduit for comedians like Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer, and now, with The King of Staten Island, Pete Davidson. These movies are rarely visually exciting; sometimes they’re painfully long. But I can’t think of any other director who’s made so many movies written by their stars, or who had such a knack for championing comedians and helping them to channel their voices.

In the case of Davidson, the voice he’s found here isn’t all that funny — by design. Instead, The King of Staten Island is a heavily autobiographical story about a guy who grew up fatherless in the outer boroughs of New York City after his firefighter father died on the job. The real Davidson’s father, Scott, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11; Pete’s character in The King of Staten Island, also named Scott, lost his dad during a particularly bad hotel fire. While Pete Davidson stumbled into a very successful career in comedy, the fictional Scott never got over his father’s death — and now lives a humble life as a 24-year-old stoner with no prospects, a bad attitude, and vague aspirations of maybe becoming a tattoo artist. He’s introduced over the opening credits driving his car along the BQE with his eyes closed. Like most of Scott’s endeavors, his suicide attempt is unsuccessful.

Those bleak early moments let the viewer know right off the bat that The King of Staten Island is not a conventional comedy, even with Apatow as its director and Davidson as his star and co-writer (with Dave Sirus). There are funny moments, but there are few out-and-out comedic setpieces; the humor appears out of honest and sometimes intense conversations. You won’t see Pete Davidson getting a wacky body hair wax (although he does at one point join a low-key fight club). For a lot of the movie you won’t really laugh at Scott at all— he’s so screwed up that he’s cruel to everyone, including his hard-working mom Margie (Marisa Tomei), and especially her new boyfriend Ray (Bill Burr), who also happens to be a firefighter.

Universal Pictures

It’s a little convenient for the movie that Margie’s new beau happens to be a firefighter, and that his profession can dredge up even more of the pain that Scott’s never gotten over. But Ray’s job also adds a whole crew of firefighters to The King of Staten Island, some of whom knew Scott’s dad, and the sequences with those men — including Jimmy Tatro, The Wire’s Domenick Lombardozzi, and a wonderful Steve Buscemi, who once worked as a New York City firefighter and knows a thing or two about grief — are the strongest in the picture. There’s a scene with all the firefighters sitting around a bar telling the unvarnished truth about Scott’s dad that’s spectacular; tough, emotional, and organically funny. And it’s just a bunch of guys sitting and shooting the breeze. Again, Apatow serves as an effective conduit for these voices.

I don’t watch Saturday Night Live as much as I used to, and I haven’t seen a lot of Davidson on the show. He seems to draw a lot of attention, and not all of it positive — maybe because he joined the cast as a young man (he’s still only 26) and has already been phenomenally successful. On the basis of The King of Staten Island, I couldn’t tell you if he could carry a whole movie that wasn’t about his own life – but he definitely carries this one. And he does it with absolutely no fear of looking vulnerable or downright s—y. For most of the film, Scott is a complete a-hole. Whatever his valid reasons for being an a-hole, he also seems totally committed to resisting any positive change in his life, at least until Ray and the firefighters offer him some assistance during a very bleak time.

Universal

That’s another Apatow strength. He knows how to keep characters likable even when they do unlikeable things. The length of his movies — he loves to make comedies over two hours — might have something to do with it. He likes to stick with underachievers, and chart their incremental growth over a period of time. There are no easy fixes in the Apatow Cinematic Universe. His characters make messes of things and then Apatow sticks around to watch them do the work of cleaning things up. You get the feeling he really cares about the people in these movies. They rarely have villains; even guys like Ray, who often makes Scott’s life miserable, have very valid points of view and motivations. (If anything, Scott is the villain of The King of Staten Island, as well as its hero.) That sort of pervasive empathy is welcome right now.

At 137 minutes, The King of Staten Island is a long movie, but not too long. I never got bored or wanted Apatow to wrap things up. If anything I wanted to spend more time with some of the supporting characters, particularly Bel Powley as Scott’s longtime friend (turned occasional hookup partner) Kelsey. Admittedly, some of that may have been that this was a film set in New York City in the distant past when you could do things like go to bars or Staten Island Yankee games, or shake a stranger’s hand when you meet them for the first time. Scott’s clumsy journey towards adulthood captures a little bit of this city’s wounded but resilient spirit. The people here screw up, sometimes badly. But they eventually set it right.

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