You notice a change: when the camera rests in Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck” for an extended beat, it retains a sense of the character in the frame, rather than just highlighting a mid-riff improvised quip that made the cut. Or, perhaps, in the ten years since his directorial debut and the start of an empire, Apatow has refined his process into a seamless manner. Or, more likely, he’s been handed a gift in the form of Amy Schumer, starting with her focused, warm script that retains her comedic DNA, and continuing with a lead performance that’s utterly watchable in a sea of watchable performances.
At the very least, “Trainwreck” will go down as the film that unveiled John Cena and LeBron James as surprise comedic talents, and also the one that let Tilda Swinton — playing an unrecognizable, eyeliner-heavy English magazine boss — snarl to Schumer’s character, “I wouldn’t fuck him with your dick.” Those three actors really showcase the height of big-budget studio access and creative trust – Apatow has cultivated a world that actors and non-actors alike want to inhabit, and together he and Schumer create a reality-bending narrative that uses that interest.
As himself, James plays an ultra-protective wingman to Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), doctor and surgeon to elite athletes, while Cena plays a baffled fling to Schumer’s character Amy, a non-committal, heavy drinking New Yorker who occasionally wakes up on Staten Island and has to take a ferry of shame home. James and Cena are the links that eventually bring Schumer and Hader together — she is tasked with writing a magazine profile on him — but Schumer’s script provides some great bit parts and cameos for folks like Randall Park, Mike Birbiglia, Vanessa Bayer, and Method Man, to name only a few.
A protagonist of stunted emotional growth is simply assumed from Apatow at this stage, but Schumer’s perspective and voice translates to a wealth of gags that breathe new life into the idea. Her mode is truth through wordplay and physical comedy, and Schumer is as honest and hilarious here as in her standup or TV work. But Apatow also nurtures a key family dynamic for the film as well, between Amy slightly resenting her sister (a very charming Brie Larson) for her married suburban life, and also tending to her bitter, sick father (Colin Quinn) as he enters into assisted living.
Of course, though, the test of a romantic comedy is its lead couple’s chemistry, and Hader and Schumer turn in stellar performances both together and apart. Hader plays the straight man of the pair to Schumer’s personality, but as in “The Skeleton Twins” last year, he handles the dramatic turns well, and also finds some key flourishes to contribute (a reaction shot in a cab when Amy directs the driver to his apartment for their hookup is brilliant). Schumer doesn’t overplay her character’s messiness, either — she actually delivers two or three subtle, standout scenes, one during an all-night argument, in which she veers realistically from composed to completely shattered without feeling false.
Meanwhile, Apatow polishes his craft while stretching himself in certain formal ways, utilizing voiceover from Schumer (with a few self-aware asides, including a killer Woody Allen joke), slow, long-lensed zooms, and a number of large set pieces. Some perfunctory traits remain, though: the film is covered to death, making some scenes hang limp when they should be electric, and with Apatow’s own dialogue absent, his filmmaking works at a slight disconnect to Schumer’s more conventionally structured and physical writing. And we should really, really call a two-film moratorium on midpoint, slo-mo club scenes, which almost seem like a necessary evil for tax incentives at this point.
At the same time, I’ll take the visual and story qualms for the focus that Schumer gives to Apatow — it’s a credit to both the story and runtime as a result. The endearing indulgences of “Funny People” or “This is 40” had their place, but “Trainwreck” allows a new development and angle to Apatow’s trademark anxieties through a unique point of view, and one of his most hilarious and finely-tuned films to date. [A-]