Judd Apatow is like Carl Reiner. He has helped Gerry Shandling, Ben Stiller, Paul Feig, virtually the entire cast of Freaks and Geeks, and Steve Carell go on to bigger and more creatively fulfilling things, just as Reiner helped Sid Caesar, Dick Van Dyke, Mel Brooks,and Steven Martin to become comedy superstars. (Not that all the people in the former could hold a candle to the ladder group.) So, in basketball terms, Apatow’s assists are greater than his points or rebounds, and his new directorial effort Trainwreck continues the trend, this time for the sake of actress/comedian/writer Amy Schumer, star of the TV series Inside Amy Schumer (who also wrote the film.)
Getting some basics out of the way: did this movie make me laugh? Yes, there was sufficient laughter. Was there any substance to any of the comedy? Yes. Is this film completely devoid of issues I have with other Apatow projects? No, not entirely. While watching Trainwreck, was I happier to be considering the possibility of Schumer becoming a movie star as opposed to watching Seth Rogen, a character actor that for some reason Apatow has elevated to the point of being an arguable movie star? YES. (Sorry but I got to get my digs in.)
Schumer stars as Amy, a New Yorker who writes for a magazine for bros (a la Maxim), parties hard and has plenty of casual sex (which lends itself to plenty of blue humor.) Her editor Dianna—played by a comically orangey, plasticized Tilda Swinton—assigns her to write an article about sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader) and, in the course of conducting research, she happens to find herself in a relationship with him although she has not completely approves of the idea of settling down. Her father Gordon (Colin Quinn) and sister Kim (Brie Larson) symbolize the two ends of the commitment spectrum: he’s a retirement-home-bound divorcee who left Amy and Kim’s mom in order to have an unabated sex life while she’s a devoted wife and stepmother who resents her father for divorcing.
To the movie’s feminist-minded credit, Amy isn’t demonized for her promiscuity, nor is she held up when she falls into a relationship with Aaron. And despite an implication that her lifestyle has been influenced by her dad’s history, Gordon isn’t presented as morally flawed either. As a result, Trainwreck is a movie that’s quite fair to all of its characters and a somewhat novel variation on the typical, modern day romantic comedy set-up in which a woman instead of a man is matter-of-factly presented as licentious. Also, this is very much an inversion of Apatow’s first film The 40-Year Old Virgin, only this this is a vehicle for a star-in-the-making about someone who has lots of sex and matures as opposed to a star-in-the-making vehicle about someone who should have sex and matures.
Schumer gets all the beats right playing an accentuated version of herself. You could say that’s nothing special—because received wisdom tells us that an actor playing her or himself is a cinch– but Schumer does it with a guileless ease that implicitly doesn’t care if inherent cultural misogyny condemns her for being vulgar and rough around the edges. This is her blatant attempt to become a comedy movie star, but she’s doing it on her own terms as it wouldn’t be worth it if it involved compromised identity politics. So whether it’s really, truly honest, I would argue that Schumer outdoes Jennifer Lawrence in terms of closing the gap between one’s ostensible real-life persona and their screen/public persona (which might explain why she has become a poster girl for humorous social commentary on the Internet, which in turn makes her a target to some and just annoying or *problematic* (gasp) to others.)
On the other hand, Trainwreck has an Apatow-ian laxness to it, something I’m not partial towards. This laissez faire style is achieved through improvised banter or riffing between actors, which indicates that Apatow’s intent is to simulate the experience of hanging out with talented comedians or actors– an experience he and Schumer are very familiar with– for the audience. Or, he just thinks it’s a good way to cram jokes in. Personally, this has had the unintended effect of feeling like I’m stuck at a party with people who I don’t necessarily like and I wish would cool it with the obligatory quips (which in turn can make me feel weirdly resentful.) But in the case of Trainwreck, I found the cast to be quite likable, so I didn’t mind “having to hang out with them” as they vamped. (Still—ten or fifteen minutes could’ve been lopped off of this movie.)
However, this leads me to my main complaint, which is that Apatow doesn’t always know the best way to make the autobiographical seem universal. As his films demonstrate, he aims to make resonate, adult comedies, but he overdraws from his own heightened or rarefied experiences. And this about the fact that he’s rich or successful; I’m not talking about how he’s a guy who has devoted his life to comedy, a realm or line-of-work that’s often surreal and one-could-say full of hostility.
This also applies to Schumer’s script. For instance: while it may be enjoyable to watch/hear Amy make withering, unchecked remarks about the people in her life and their choices, often to their faces, I bet many wouldn’t stand her if she were in their extended family. But for Schumer and Apatow, they have to see this kind of behavior as relatively normal as their world is full of people who are constantly taking potshots at those around them. As a consequence there’s a quality to Apatow’s work in which the margins of the comedy feel too contrived and unreliable as something truthful and relatable is being sought at the center. Or, Apatow reflects the comedy world but does not always seem to distinguish for the viewer where that ends and real-life-as-most-know-it begins, and all he has to do is call it out.
(Also, the movie is impugned by an orange-and-teal visual look that seems to have been created in post via Digitial Intermediate. It’s an aesthetic that’s all too prevalent in mainstream filmmaking these days and doesn’t need to be in a comedy about people that doesn’t feature explosions.)
But because of Schumer’s input and point-of-view, Trainwreck is a grounded-enough effort. It might be set in idealized New York City and feature many of the romantic comedy clichés that David Wain spoofed in They Came Together (i.e. the mise en scene is too polished and there’s an non-ironic scene in which guys discuss personal issues while playing basketball.). Yet there are plenty of details in the story that are clearly personal and humiliating, giving the comedy a dimension of self-deprecation that also helps to leaven Amy’s character. (It seems a part of Schumer’s equal-opportunity-offender style to insult herself as well as others, which is fair enough.)
Also, as I mentioned before, the cast is mostly charming. Hader continues to show that he can be a viable film actor after Saturday Night Live and, in his big screen acting debut, LeBron James shows some comedic chops playing himself as Aaron’s best friend and confidant (he’s better than Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal.) However, there are some arbitrary cameos that scream, “This is who we could get on the day!” (I’m looking at you, Marv Albert.) On the other hand, one hundred year old national treasure Norman Lloyd shows up in a bit role as Gordon’s retirement home neighbor. (That’s right—Trainwreck features LeBron James and Norman Lloyd, which will please those who are classic film lovers and sports enthusiasts.)
Trainwreck may not reinvent the romantic comedy or be a major revision of Apatow’s directorial style, but it does constitute as a step in the right direction as well as a mission statement from its star Schumer. Damning with faint praise? Maybe. But at least this movie isn’t really true to its title.