Reviews

‘Trainwreck’ Isn’t Enough of One

Amy Schumer’s rom-com isn’t the raunch fest that Trainwreck's pre-release hype has promised. It’s more like a typical Judd Apatow movie about childish adults growing up.


Trainwreck

Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Mike Birbiglia, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Vanessa Bayer, Ezra Miller, Dave Attell
Rated: R
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-07-17 (General release)
UK date: 2015-08-28 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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