If you spend any time in some of the hipper left-leaning corners of the internet you know who Amy Schumer is. To certain websites and constituencies she’s the world’s most important comedian and every episode of her sketch show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” is eagerly dissected and reposted as stories with titles like “Amy Schumer brilliantly skewers [insert patriarchal tendency] in pitch-perfect sketch.” In truth the show isn’t quite as omnipresently popular as it seems within certain internet bubbles. Each episode is watched by a little more than half the audience of the average episode of the much derided “Tosh.0” and around a third of the audience of an average episode of “South Park,” but its ability to establish a devoted following within a dedicated niche is impressive. Personally, I find the show and Schumer’s comedy stylings kind of hit and miss. Is it over-rated? Well, how could it not be over-rated given how much hype is behind it? The show is funny and clever at times but there are certainly better sketch shows out there. A lot of its appeal is rooted in the fact that most of its humor is related to feminist issues and the more important those issues are to you the more likely you are to worship the show and as someone who views these issues as important but not centrally important I was probably not destined to love the show. Still, Schumer is clearly a pretty important comedic voice and the idea of her teaming up with comedy super-director/producer Judd Apatow is pretty damn promising.
In Trainwreck Schumer plays a woman named Amy Townsend who works at a GQ-esque men’s magazine called S’nuff Magazine. At an editorial meeting one of her colleagues (Jon Glaser) proposes a story about a pioneering sports doctor who’s planning to test a new surgery that could cut down players’ recovery time significantly. Townsend initially dismisses the story because of her blanket bias against all things sports related but her editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton) begins to think that Townsend’s hatred of athletics could bring an interesting dimension to the story and gives her the assignment. When she goes to interview the doctor, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), she is initially unfazed by his medical expertise and his friendship with LeBron James (who plays a version of himself) but her interview escalates into a date which turns into a one-night stand. Oddly smitten by Townsend, Conners makes it known that he wants this relationship to turn into something serious, but Townsend has been living a cavalier life of drunken debauchery up to this point and is not sure she really wants a real truly monogamous relationship.
The film’s title is supposed to refer to the life of its protagonist, but it perhaps seems a bit judgmental given the relatively tame lifestyle depicted in the film. Sure, Amy Townsend seems to have an above-average number of sexual partners but her liaisons mostly don’t seem wildly reckless or dangerous, and she drinks a lot but decidedly isn’t depicted as a full-blown alcoholic. She doesn’t seem to use drugs beyond a sporadic toke, she holds a fairly enviable job for most of the film, and starts the film with a doting boyfriend (played by John Cena, of all people). She’s certainly not a role-model and I wouldn’t necessarily want to switch places with her, but to call her a “trainwreck” seems a bit much. Shame this is not. Given that this is meant to be a comedy that may well have been an understandable decision, but just the same I can’t help but feel like the movie is kind of posing as something edgier than it actually is.
The film does not place feminist gender issues front and center the way that Schumer’s TV series does but I do think there’s an implicit statement being attempted in the way the film swaps traditional romantic comedy roles. Traditionally these modern romantic comedies are about slovenly but charming men overcoming their inhibitions and bettering themselves in order to win over the beautiful leading woman looking for stability. Here it’s the woman with the dumpy bachelor lifestyle who must better herself and win over the straight laced man who seems to be looking for domestic stability. Bill Hader is probably not a handsome lead who could be called the male equivalent of a Julia Roberts or Katherine Heigl but otherwise the romcom subversion does seem to be pretty consistent. The gender swaps work fairly well when done on a macro level as described above but it begins to feel a little forced and cutesy when it comes to some of the individual scenes forcing the characters to behave in ways that are un-stereotypical in unbelievable extremes like one scene where Schumer receives a call from Hader the morning after their initial hook-up and along with her friend acts with masculine incredulousness at the gesture while Hader and LeBron James are on the other end of the call giggling like schoolgirls.
And make no mistake; this is a fairly formulaic romantic comedy at its core. It doesn’t flaunt this to the point of being a parody, but there’s a misunderstanding separating the couple at exactly the point you expect there to be one which is resolved in typical romcom fashion with a grand gesture. It hides its genre trappings fairly well early on but in its third act it does indulge in this formula and in ways that feel more like cliché than like subversion. The film also feels like it could stand to be trimmed a little. Judd Apatow movies have long been accused of being too long, which I generally haven’t felt was the problem that others did but I did feel it a little bit here, in part because it seems a bit more like it’s following a set formula than Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin did. All told I would say that on every structural level this film is kind of flawed.
That having been said, there’s a lot of funny stuff here. A lot. Like, more than enough to make up for most of the movie’s shortcomings. We’ve seen women try to do Apatow-esque humor before with varying degrees of success before but it seems to work a lot better here. This might simply be because Apatow himself is behind the director’s chair rather than Paul Feig, but it probably has more to do with the fact that Amy Schumer is closer to being a female Seth Rogen than Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy do. She does a good job bringing the improvised funny lines and so do most of her co-stars. The movie makes great use of B-tier comedic actors like Colin Quinn, Brie Larson, and Randall Park and also manages to get some surprisingly credible comedy out of non-actors like LeBron James and John Cena. I would say that Bill Hader is perhaps a bit wasted in his largely straight role, on Saturday Night Live he always thrived when he was doing impressions taking on strange comedic characters and his doctor character here doesn’t really play to those strengths.
So, what to make of Trainwreck… this is kind of a tough one to call. I certainly like it, but how much do I like it? Let’s just say that the film’s shortcomings were more apparent to me after it was over than they were while I was actually watching it. The movie works a lot better moment to moment than it does as a complete work, but I don’t want to exaggerate its structural flaws either. There are a lot of comedies that are a lot more ramshackle than this and while the Judd Apatow comedy structure might seem a little less special now than it did ten years ago, you can still tell why his movies feel a bit easier to respect than some of the less grounded varieties of comedy. For whatever flaws the film may have had, I can’t help but say “yeah, but I was laughing at a lot of stuff.”
***1/2 out of Four