God, how we love films about “difficult” women! And not necessarily women who are psychotic, troubled, damaged or villainous, but the complex and complicated ones who can simply get shit wrong, behave stupidly, and who don’t always act in good faith. They may learn from their mistakes or they may not, but they own them. Of the many services that Amy Schumer performed with her recent Judd Apatow-directed hit comedy one of the less mentioned was applying (and partially reclaiming) the word “trainwreck” as a descriptor of that type of lifestyle and psychology. Of course, it can be seen as pejorative, and like the word “bitch,” it has a different connotation when self-applied than it does when used derisively by others. But as loaded as it is, it’s possibly the best term yet for the kind of (more loaded terms) complicated, difficult, messed-up, often unlikeable female lead character that we are seeing just a few more of on the big screen in recent years. While there are those who critique these films and these characters for somehow not being “role model”-ish enough (in a way that equivalent male anti-heroes, losers, loners and man-children are seldom examined), for most of the more enlightened world, it’s a trend to be embraced and to rejoice. Because the one thing a “trainwreck” female character is not is a traditional big-screen representation of womanhood —and traditional big-screen representations of womanhood largely suck.
So what do we mean by the term? The “trainwreck” character is often a pain in the ass to be around. She can be selfish. She lacks some or all of the qualities that constitute the “accepted” view of femininity —perhaps she’s promiscuous, perhaps she drinks, perhaps she is a neglectful mother, perhaps she has no nurturing instinct, or perhaps she’s more cutting than compassionate, more careerist than caring. But crucially, she’s never only one of those things (this is not simply a list of movie alcoholics, for example) —there are many, many things amiss with the “trainwreck” character, all of which go to make her behavior even more self-defeating and self-destructive, no matter how obnoxious it is to others. And the self- part of that equation is key: despite how fucked up the “trainwreck” character is, her problems and the potential solutions stem from something within her personality. Which means that, in contrast to a depressingly large proportion of female movie characters, she has one.
Though the phenomenon is not wholly without precedent, in the last few years we’ve seen more of these women crop up on the big screen in dramas and comedies that provide a refreshing alternative not only to the dude-saves-the-world tentpole ethos, but to the glut of smaller indie films that take the male experience as their primary focus. It’s felt quietly revolutionary each time, a gentle indication that perhaps we are ever so slowly moving toward a broader, more inclusive, more variegated and complex representation of women in film. And arguably, TV is further ahead on this trend, with shows like “Girls,” “Homeland,” “Weeds,” “Nurse Jackie” and “Orange is the New Black,” among others, all showcasing women who in some way fit the bill. With “Trainwreck” still rolling out worldwide and “Ricki and the Flash” opening this Friday, we’ve looked at 10 examples of the “trainwreck” character below —long may she continue to fall down, fuck up and piss everybody off along the way.
“Margot at the Wedding” (2007)
One could argue that Noah Baumbach has made a career of chronicling the foibles of characters who are frequently difficult to warm up to. Whether it’s the passive-aggressive intellectuals of “The Squid and the Whale” or the namesake grump of his moody “Greenberg” right up to his other entry on this list (see below), Baumbach’s characters are often opportunistic, self-absorbed, and anything but cozy in the traditional sense of the term. The titular protagonist of his disconcerting “Margot at the Wedding,” may be his least warm and fuzzy creation to date. A vindictive writer (which makes three writers on this list) who casually mines from her troubled family history what she claims is “fiction,” (a meta-reference to the overblown claim that Baumbach’s script for “The Squid and the Whale” was nakedly autobiographical) Nicole Kidman’s Margot is nothing less than a devil in a floppy summer hat. She’s outwardly aggressive, occasionally masking her spite and resentment behind a smile more sinister than the blank-faced one that Kidman sports in “The Stepford Wives.” She abuses her essentially good-natured sister, insults her only son and is generally a pain in the ass for everyone she encounters: and you can’t tear your eyes away from her. The film itself is massively underrated as a fascinating mid-period turning point for its writer-director, but those who can’t warm to Baumbach’s jagged and unsettling portrait of familial unrest can’t really be faulted: Margot is the real definition of a trainwreck, as well as one of the most memorable characters in the Baumbach canon.
“Queen Of Earth” (2015)
Having provided the inspiration for our Narcissistic Assholes feature with the title character in “Listen Up Philip,” writer/director Alex Ross Perry came through again as such on this feature with the terrific, eerie (and very different from his previous picture) “Queen Of Earth.” In contrast to the ambitious, novelistic, Woody Allen-ish vibe of ‘Phillip,’ “Queen Of Earth” is a tight two-hander, a horror-tinged psychological drama with shades of Bergman, and “Persona” in particular. Elisabeth Moss (who just gets better and better) stars as Catherine, a young artist reeling from the suicide of her father and being dumped by her boyfriend (Kentucker Audley). She goes to stay with her oldest friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston, in a performance that’s every bit Moss’s equal) in the hope of recapturing the happiness of the previous summer, but it does little good for her mental state. It’s an eerie, unbalanced picture, one where past and present collide, and gestures and looks tell so much of the story (along with some phenomenal sound design), but it’s the performances that truly make it exceptional. Waterston, capable of both brittleness and warmth at once, is confirmed as an estimable talent, while Moss is truly extraordinary even by her standards, starting off from an unstable jumping-off point and fraying and unravelling from there. It’s less of a performance than a personification of a raw nerve, and she doesn’t give the impression that she’s making choices as much as she is tumbling down an iron staircase.
“Valley of the Dolls” (1967)
So “trainwreck” could describe this entire endeavor —an adaptation of Jacqueline Susann‘s bestseller by journeyman director Mark Robson— and not just one character. But as a sexist, homophobic, kitsch, camp, laughably scripted, shoddily flung-together film, “Valley of the Dolls” retains an almost insane level of watchability —doubtless the reason the critically eviscerated film was such a massive box office hit. And central to its herky-jerky, more-is-more-ishness is the film’s most interesting and lurid character, starlet Neely O’Hara, played by Patty Duke. She was also the most accomplished actor in the cast, having already won an Oscar for playing Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” Her storyline is an unintentionally hysterical take on “All About Eve,” going from broadway ingenue whose talent threatens established stalwart Susan Hayward (in a role meant for Judy Garland), to troubled Hollywood starlet, to washed up, pill-popping, unhireable monster diva across the course of a few graceless cuts and non-sequitur scenes. It’s a film of its time, serving up controversial details (abortions, pornography, adultery, addiction, the casually toxic use of the word “fag”) in service of an awesomely retrograde agenda, so that the three central female characters, who are apparently fast friends (though there is next-to-no sense of that as such), must be variously punished for their transgressions. But it’s only Neely who still retains some shred of herself by the end: the last glimpse of her may be ruined, sozzled in an alleyway next to some trashcans bizarrely sobbing out her own name repeatedly, but she’s still fourteen times the person that distressingly whitebread Anne (Barbara Parkins) or vacant, doomed Jen (Sharon Tate) will ever be.
Take Amy Schumer out of “Trainwreck” and what you’re left with is a typically good-natured Apatow laffer that disguises its surprisingly conservative moral agenda behind a veritable cavalcade of sex jokes, weed jokes and those ever-ubiquitous celebrity cameos. The movie doesn’t really work without her, and whenever its focus is taken away as such, it falters noticeably. Schumer’s fearless, devil-may-care charm carries the day, consolidating her status as the comedy success story of the moment. Playing an allegedly lightly fictionalized version of herself, Schumer’s Amy is a hard-charging, truth-telling, drug-consuming city girl for whom sex is a means of defense. Nobody makes a move, nobody gets hurt. That all changes, as it typically does in movies of this sort (and this film is a rom-com at heart), when Amy meets Dr. Aaron Connors (Bill Hader, who is very good in a straight man role), a geeky sweetheart of a sports doctor who is able to look past her often shameless behavior and see the heart beneath the bluster. “Trainwreck” can be shapeless, and is often bogged down in overlong improv sessions (a consistent problem for Apatow, which he doesn’t seem concerned with alleviating), but whenever the focus is solely on Schumer, the film soars. Amy is often petty, mean-spirited and self-serving, but she’s also funny, unpretentious and committed to telling the truth at all costs, because that is who she is. It’s a star-making performance in a movie that doesn’t always deserve it.
“Young Adult” (2011)
Mavis Gary is not a happy person. She drinks, often to excess. She’s recently divorced, although she hasn’t given up on winning the affections of her high-school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) who is now happily married in a cozy Minnesota suburb. She’s also a ghostwriter of Young Adult fiction who possesses nothing but unbridled contempt for her readers. She really shouldn’t be such good company for 94 minutes, but as the black heart of Jason Reitman’s acidic, brittle “Young Adult,” she’s spellbinding. Played by Charlize Theron in a committed, career-highlight turn, Mavis still fancies herself the mean-girl queen of her small town, and she’s too oblivious to realize that her once-callous friends have all gone on to live very satisfying lives without her. Director Reitman has stumbled in recent years with misguided efforts like the schmaltzy “Labor Day” and the truly baffling “Men, Women & Children,” but “Young Adult” sees him at the peak of his talents: operating from a whip-smart script by “Juno” collaborator Diablo Cody and eliciting beautiful, moving and honest turns from his three leads Theron, Wilson and comic Patton Oswalt. At the end of the film, Mavis has been taken down a peg or two, but it’s genuinely hard to tell if she’s learned anything, and Theron’s refusal to sentimentalize this needy, creepy loser of a character is admirable and brave. Attracting all the right kind of vitriol on first release, this performance continues to resonate upon repeat viewings: she may not be someone we like, but Mavis feels like someone we know (or even, horrifyingly, someone we might be).
“Rachel Getting Married” (2008)
She won her Oscar for “Les Miserables” a few years later, but Anne Hathaway really should have taken that statue home a few years earlier for Jonathan Demme’s raw-yet-vibrant portrait of a family dealing with both tragedy and joy. Penned by Jenny Lumet, daughter of Sidney, the film sees Hathaway play Kym, a troubled, drug-addicted woman who’s out of rehab for a few days for the wedding of her older sister (Rosemarie DeWitt). She’s greeted warmly by the family, but there’s almost immediate tension: it eventually emerges that Rachel was responsible for the death of her younger brother in a DUI accident. “I am Shiva the destroyer, your harbinger of doom for the evening,” Kym announces in a toast at one point, and she’s not wrong: even sober (bar the cigarettes she’s constantly puffing), she’s an agent of chaos, all panda-eye make-up and acerbic put-downs, without much regard for what other people think of her. Part of the brilliance of Hathaway’s performance is how little she seems to be after the audience’s approval —particularly given that her persona often comes across as a bit needy drama-camp-kid— but another is how she gradually introduces the character’s deep damage beneath the spiky exterior. Kym’s backstory could risk coming across as a melodramatic, but there’s never a moment when Hathaway doesn’t find the truth behind it, aided in no small part by DeWitt, Debra Winger and Bill Irwin as the rest of the family.
On the surface, “Bachelorette” looks like an entirely commercial proposition: a hard-R-rated, star-filled comedy that seemed to mix two recent megahits in “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids.” But in the end, the result was something much less accessible. It’s a prickly, pitch-black comedy that not only didn’t care if you liked it, but actively encouraged you to hate it. Plenty did, but for those in tune with its wavelength, it proved to be a refreshing antidote to the heartwarming, vaguely conservative third-acts of most mainstream comedies. First-time director Leslye Headland’s picture sees three old high school friends, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and Katie (Isla Fisher) each discovering that their overweight ‘friend’ Becky (Rebel Wilson) is getting married, and that they’re invited to the bachelorette party. Set mostly over the course of one night, the film swiftly reveals that despite the contempt with which they regard Beck, all three are hollow, miserable people. Katie (courtesy of a typically brilliant performance by Fisher) is the most obvious mess, consuming pretty much all the drink and drugs, and as it it later emerges, attempted suicide recently. But her pals aren’t much better: Gena’s masking a fairly spectacular cocaine habit, Regan’s bitter about, well, everything, and they’re unpleasant towards pretty much everybody they meet, including the various equally-awful dudes they end up picking up (James Marsden, Adam Scott, Kyle Bornheimer). It’s gleefully mean-spirited stuff, but the three talented actresses somehow keep your interest, if not your sympathy, high throughout.
“Mistress America” (2015)
The second co-writing collaboration between Noah Baumbach and his muse and “Greenberg” star Greta Gerwig, and nearly as joyous as the first, 2012’s “Frances Ha,” “Mistress America” focuses on a character who, while she appears to have the world at her feet when we first meet her, might be experiencing even more turmoil than her dance-loving predecessor. Gerwig shares the spotlight this time —we first meet Lola Kirke’s shy college freshman Tracy before she meets the woman who’ll soon be her step-sister, Gerwig’s Brooke. Coming across like a Whit Stillman character if Stillman made 1930s screwball comedies, Brooke dashes through life like a hurricane, sweeping up Brooke in a rush of parties, schemes and plans, and becomes something of an idol for the younger woman. She’s loved up with her Greek beau Stavros, has the investment locked up for a restaurant she’s going to open, and lives in a glamorous apartment (that’s technically commercially-zoned). But all of a sudden, all of these things implode together, and it becomes clear that Brooke never stops moving —if she did, she’d notice what a half-formed wreck her life really is. Like “Frances Ha” before it, it’s a surprisingly rich character study in the guise of an extremely delightful comedy —the almost stage-farce like third act at the house of Brooke’s frenemy (Heather Lind) and ex-boyfriend (Michael Chernus), is tremendous— showing us both the enormous charisma of Brooke, but also the darker side of her restlessness and inability to see anything through.
“Anna Christie” (1930)
Famously Greta Garbo‘s first talking role (and what a gorgeous, low-pitched, melodic voice she had), it might seem strange that we’re zooming all the way back to 1930. But when you consider that this is the pre-Code era, before Hollywood went super-moralistic and after years of silent pictures pushing the risque envelope, perhaps it’s a little less so. “Anna Christie” is based on the 1922 Pulitzer Prize-winning Eugene O’Neill play, so it had a dramatic pedigree and a certain respectability somewhat built-in. Still, despite the static camerawork, claustrophobic framing and creaky acting, it’s remarkable how modern it feels now, and a lot of that is down to the character of Anna and to Garbo’s Oscar-winning portrayal. A hard-drinking ex-hooker whose first lines are famously “gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby,” Anna is admittedly made over by love. But she doesn’t make things easy on herself: she initially worries she might have killed her sailor boyfriend when she knocks him over, and she has a rocky, resentful relationship with the father who abandoned her. In fact, her climactic decision to reveal her sordid past is motivated as much by a kind of inner rage as it is by honesty. “You’re going on as if one of you had to own me” she spits at them both, “but nobody owns me, see? ‘Cepting myself.” She’s essentially burning down her chances for happiness in the future, but taking a malicious pleasure in so doing, and in the miraculous pre-Code era, the fact that she doesn’t have to be “punished” for her sins is the icing on the cake.
“Ricki and the Flash” (2015)
Of all the messed-up characters on this list, Meryl Streep’s Ricki Rendazzo from the Jonathan Demme–directed “Ricki And The Flash” is perhaps the least broken of all. But the term is relative, and as our review suggests, the Diablo Cody-written Rendazzo is a softer version of the fucked-up characters seen in Cody’s “Young Adult” script and Demme’s “Rachel At The Wedding”, a lineage which makes their collaboration here so inspired. As the EW review points out, the movie “raises smart questions about why a mother’s musical ambitions are so much more selfish than, say, seven-time dad Mick Jagger’s.” Politically it’s a good point, but as a parent, Rendazzo is torn. She “selfishly” leaves her husband and three kids and moves to California to make it big as a rock star, and while she instead ends up as a hot-mess bar-band frontwoman, she’s oddly pretty happy with who she is and what she’s got. So while it’s easy to label Ricki as a deadbeat mom, and the movie does play a lot with the idea of double standards for parents, the reality is a bit more complex. And Ricki’s problems, guilt and regrets butt heads against her desire to unapologetically be the person she wants to be. Of course, putting yourself before your children will be seen as narcissistic and self-absorbed any way you slice it, but for all its problems, “Ricki And The Flash,” at least puts a character you’ve never seen lead a movie before front-and-center .
So which movie characters do you think fit the “trainwreck” description? Any favorites we’ve missed, and do you love them, hate them or love to hate them? Let us know below.
— Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Nicholas Laskin, Rodrigo Perez