Trainwreck takes a step that seems daring, but shouldn’t be, relocating the female character usually relegated to the periphery in a romantic comedy — say, the drunk disaster at the heroine’s wedding — and putting her front and center.
Written by Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow, the film focuses on Amy (played by Schumer), another variation on the stock character from her TV show. Narcissistic and cutting, she’s racked up several lifetimes’ worth of one-night stands, terrified of commitment, and inclined to over-share. While the character tends toward dirty humor, she’s not so much intentionally shocking, a la Sarah Silverman, but rather, so self-involved that she’s unconcerned with how anyone else might take her revelations, as when she compares sleeping with her pseudo-boyfriend Steven (John Cena) to “having sex with an ice sculpture.”
No matter how potty-mouthed or frequently blackout drunk this Amy may be, however, she’s living in a New York-set rom-com, which means that she’s working at a glamorous men’s magazine. This allows for some basic gags (the first scene has her horrified at waking up in a random guy’s place on Staten Island) as well as some situational comedy. Called S’Nuff, the publication looks like a toxic mixture of Buzzfeed and Maxim (and it’s probably only about five minutes away from becoming reality).
Although it’s never quite clear what Amy writes for S’Nuff, her editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton) assigns her to write a profile piece on slightly nerdy sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader, the straight-arrow for once), who will be her romantic challenge for the film. As in most such movies, the blonde star has a best friend with whom she commiserates (Vanessa Bayer, one of a squad of SNL cast members in small roles). Their girl-talk isn’t so much focused on trying to find the right guy, but on Amy’s terror that one of the men she meets (a number of them listed in credits as “One-Night Stand Guy”) might actually want her to spend the night or (ick) call her to meet again.
Amy’s fear of commitment is traced right back to her father Gordon (Colin Quinn), seen in the opening scene lecturing a young Amy and her sister Kim about the dangers of settling down. As an adult, Amy follows the hard-drinking, acerbic Gordon’s advice to the letter, even as she might hope that all her selfish and destructive behavior will be overlooked because she was such a fun party-girl. By contrast, Kim (Brie Larson) has married a regular and unassuming guy (Mike Birbiglia), with whom she is raising his son and is pregnant with her first. As they embody a funny and touching triangulation of differing worldviews, anger-edged love, and comedy, Amy and Kim are engaging as sisters, their conversations and their tensions convincing, as Amy mistakes Kim’s concern for scorn and her refusal to get sucked into Gordon’s misanthropy for some kind of jealousy.
But Trainwreck doesn’t focus on this dynamic. Instead it veers off course not long after Amy and Aaron start turning into a real couple. To the film’s credit, it riffs on but doesn’t overdo the opposites-attract dialectic, even though Amy is so clueless about sports that when an underhandedly charming LeBron James (playing himself) stops by to see his buddy Aaron, her only comment is, “He’s tall.”
At first, the relationship works surprisingly well. Hader is more downbeat than usual, but he and Schumer have a warm chemistry that helps to make up for the fact that Aaron is never given enough of a backstory to make him anything more than The Nice Guy She Should Be With. The film puts more effort into Aaron’s scenes with James, which appear more genuine than the usual scenes between the romantic lead and his best friend (think about the stiff interactions between Tom Hanks and Dave Chappelle in You’ve Got Mail). Their exchanges get some mileage out of James playing a hyper-sincere nerd who worries about watching Downton Abbey before the rest of his team, insists on splitting the bill, and demands to know Amy’s “intentions” with Aaron.
James’ scenes are some of the film’s best, but they also signal a problem that nearly kills all the good will they engender. After a tragedy throws a bomb into Amy’s already stressful family situation, Trainwreck turns from self-aware rom-com — the kind that wants to have a lovers-in-bloom montage, but still comment ironically on it — to a more standard Apatow narrative about a young adult learning to put away childish things. When Amy starts cleaning up her life, a couple of scenes seems like gender-reversed cribs from Seth Rogen’s character arc in Knocked Up.
Even apart from Apatow borrowing from his own work, his new film shows other signs of its lack of imagination, for instance, piling on more celebrity cameos than could possibly be needed. There’s a labored Amar’e Stoudemire subplot that drags the action to a halt, and a strange scene involving James, Matthew Broderick, Marv Albert, and Chris Evert that feels like an outtake from a Will Ferrell and Adam MacKay sports satire, only without the surreal humor. We might hope that Apatow and other filmmakers heed this lesson: inserting famous people into comedies, repeating their names ad nauseam, and having them act against type is not intrinsically funny.
All that said, Trainwreck is as much an Amy Schumer film as a Judd Apatow film. And as an Amy Schumer film, it doesn’t offer the revolutionary upheaval of female stereotypes that some of the pre-release press suggests. Instead, it’s a funnier than average summer comedy that allows its female star to be a train wreck and not feel the need to punish her for it.