“Trainwreck” promises the subversive experience we’ve come to expect from Amy Schumer. She’s the fabulously shameless gutter-mind behind Comedy Central sketch show “Inside Amy Schumer.” But it’s actually the year’s most vanilla rom-com, a conventional package dressed in a walk-of-shame’s clothing. There are subversive elements—I love Amy’s take-charge approach to sex, and her own ambivalence to the lack of feeling at her core, like when she tells her beefy muscle boyfriend, in an argument, “I’m too fucked up right now, can we talk about this tomorrow?”
But then there’s the film’s second half. I suspect that Judd Apatow, who doctored the script, sanded down a ton of Schumer’s edges, the warts-and-all that we see in her TV series which, in its third season, is suffering now that she has to be the spokesperson for feminism. She’s less funny now because of it. Necessary, but less funny.
The title of the movie is a bit of a misnomer. Schumer’s character, named Amy, isn’t much of a “trainwreck” at all. When I think “trainwreck,” I think “walking disaster who is sucking the souls out of everyone in her life.” Sure, Amy has no grace, but she’s got a posh editorial job (at a men’s magazine whose top stories, “Ugliest Celebrity Kids Under 6,” “Am I Gay or Is She Just Boring?” ring ickily true), high-functioning drinking habits and can juggle a string of loveless sexual encounters that, though they may keep intimacy and engulfment at bay, don’t interfere with her career or friendships (until they do, and it doesn’t happen organically).
So when she meets cute with Bill Hader’s (admittedly) adorable sports doctor—and all the while her prissy married sister (Brie Larson) is pregnant and her father, who drilled a fear of monogamy into their heads at a young age, is riven by dementia—and begins to experience feelings of love as if it were an affliction, it feels like the film suddenly has a lesson to teach her.
Why, as the film slogs toward its touchy-feely conclusion, does the script have to force her to relinquish her wanton femininity and pull down the freak flag in favor of the safer, comfier structures of family, togetherness and coupledom? Why does Amy have to chuck all her drug and alcohol paraphernalia — before shoving it in the hands of a homeless catcaller — in the name of Love? Call me an heathen, but I’m irked by movies like “Trainwreck” that seem to want to say, “It’s okay, be a disaster, embrace it”—or as Jennifer Lawrence says in “Silver Linings Playbook” before that movie too gets all soft, “There will always be a part of me that is sloppy and dirty but I like that about me.” And then they go limp on that promise! Don’t you think “Trainwreck,” like Amy’s happily settled sister, is judging her lifestyle just a little bit?
There’s a better version of this movie out there and I think it might be called “Nymphomaniac.”
Anne Thompson: Like you, the title “Trainwreck” led me to expect the edgy comedian Amy Schumer–which might have grated on the big screen in the wrong hands. (Think non-Paul-Feig Melissa McCarthy.) I was surprised by what I got: an accessible, honest, emotional portrayal of a real woman. Sure, this is a mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy funded by a studio (and this movie will feed Universal’s box-office surge). They pay Apatow big bucks to lure audiences into theaters. But while I often find myself wishing that I was seeing the gritty indie version of a movie, that did not happen here.
That’s because Apatow developed the script with Schumer, pulling out her vulnerabilities, and had the sense to insist that she star in it. (That move seems more obvious now than it did two years ago.) The narrative line is conventional and follows one of the oldest Hollywood romance tropes, although it’s usually gender-reversed: the lead is good at their job but has a messy personal life and is not interested in settling down, comes upon a worthy mate who tames them into submission, but our reluctant romantic still keeps a secret or behaves badly, risking losing everything. The couple break up, they’re miserable apart, and finally the lead finds a dramatic way to demonstrate their love, and the duo reunite. Satisfaction comes from enjoying all the acting out and crazy chaos, but returning to the calm order of things. ‘Twas ever thus.
It’s the execution and the delicious details that blew me away. I was surprised by what a terrific actress Schumer is (she’s acted in plays, has a college theater degree, and studied at the William Esper Studio in New York). And she’s sexy as hell. Clearly the hair, makeup and costume people on the movie worked overtime to make her as beautiful as they possibly could–but not to the extent of over-glamorizing her or making her a ridiculous babe. They got her just right. Attractive, athletic (Schumer played volleyball in high school), casually professional, a little messy.
Her magazine milieu rings true, from the incomparable Tilda Swinton as her boss to her schadenfreude-ridden work rivals. (How often do movies get journalism wrong? Almost always.) Apatow and Schumer nail the media world, partly because they are still tuned into reality enough that all the work stuff rings plausibly true. And so does the sports doctor. Bill Hader, who has built up a solid portfolio of supporting roles, from “Adventureland” to “Skeleton Twins,” shines as a leading man who could have been boringly bland (think Paul Rudd). Not here: he’s alert, inquisitive, reactive. They are well-matched. Neither Schumer nor Hader has that tinge of trying to wow us with their charm or be funny. They’re not paying us any mind; they’re inside these people.
You don’t get this in a Hollywood movie every day. For those who are resistant to romance, there’s LeBron James in his movie debut and a moving father-sister subplot that also felt authentic as opposed to manipulative; I did not expect Schumer to make me cry.
Sure, the ending smacks of the sort of showstopper Cameron Crowe came up with for John Cusack and a boombox. But “Trainwreck” moves the needle quite a bit when it comes to male-female relations–when was the last time you heard jokes about bloody tampons? In the end, the girl has to give in to the guy just enough to show him she cares. Audiences will eat it up.
RL: And like you, Anne, I agree that you don’t get a studio comedy like this often, especially from Apatow, who from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “This Is 40” and “Funny People” likes to navel-gaze at the male experience. Schumer brings a refreshingly dominant, not to mention badly needed, female perspective to her director’s vision. (Though I fell in love with Leslie Mann’s frittering wife-and-mother in “This Is 40” who, and this may be because she’s the real life mother of Apatow’s children, was the star of that film.)
Audiences will indeed eat “Trainwreck” up, but that’s because the movie does follow all those traditional Hollywood equations. Schumer fits into them comfortably, which is what worries me because, bloody tampon jokes and brazen dirty-talking aside, I’d hate to see her wily, unpredictable comic persona get fettered by formula.
Village Voice’s Stephanie Zacharek points at what feels like the movie’s central tension, which rests on the one hand between Schumer and Apatow but also between the movie’s mixed messages: “Schumer’s vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies, even the best ones, follow: one in which the comforts of conventional partnerships and family life are what we should all aspire to, even though we may pretend to be interested in tawdry things like casual sex and excessive partying.”
But I’m hesitant to endorse her view that the film “feels carefully constructed to make its points, chief among them that men can get away with all kinds of bad or crazy behavior that women can’t.” In the movie I saw, the men including Bill Hader and LeBron James (who Anthony Lane, who is not onboard this “Trainwreck,” writes is just one in an “embarrassment” of name checks), were well-mannered co-dependents.
Amy’s free-flowing carnality and tendency to gloriously overdo it never felt rooted in some self-destructive place. And yet her character is ultimately written that way. When she tells her sister she is who she is because she’s “broken,” it’s a cop-out, in the same way Hannah Horvath’s Fiona Apple-quoting soliloquy in the season two episode of “Girls” “One Man’s Trash”— “I want happiness”/”but there’s something broken inside of me”—was a sly cheat. Amy chases altered states and one night-stands, but instead of celebrating the joy and freedom of this alternative lifestyle, the film writes it off as a symptom of being broken inside.
I wanted a more extreme movie, and now I know better that that was never going to happen. As Anthony Lane also writes “Trainwreck,” “Are there any modern comedies that hold their nerve, and pursue their radical options to a bitter end?” Maybe not in the Hollywood universe. While “Trainwreck” may be too vanilla a studio comedy for me, it’s definitely the only film of the year that packs in a “We Need to Talk About Kevin” homage thanks to the considerable shared screen-time between Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, who (nearly) run away with the movie. So “Trainwreck” gets kudos for that.
AT: They do not! Anyway, while this romantic-comedy worked for me (and most don’t), I will not go so far as to say that it’s a feminist comedy. Zacharek is right on that score.
I disagree with you on Amy’s self-destruction and being wounded. It’s there. The comedy comes from the idea that the divorced dad instilled in his daughter the idea that monogamy was wrong, and into her 30s she’s still kicking guys out of bed and acting like Don Juan. She does come from a dysfunctional broken family and suffers from low-self-esteem, putting up with a job she hates and dumb boyfriends she can barely relate to. Truth is, she doesn’t figure out that this behavior isn’t making her happy (drinking helps) until the sports doctor insists on sleeping through the night and kissing her tenderly on the lips.
This movie shares some DNA with Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” in which Michael Fassbender’s sex addict is at the same time miserable with trying to control his sexual encounters and terrified of intimacy to the point that he can barely function on an actual date. In “Trainwreck,” real romance throws our heroine off her game–who likes change?–but she figures out who she really is, and what she really wants.