Silver Screen: Trainwreck **1/2
The confounding feminism of Amy Schumer is the strength and the weakness of Trainwreck, a hit-and-miss romantic comedy that exists somewhere in the gap between the sensibilities of its star and its director, Judd Apatow.
Trainwreck is a revealing, semiautobiographical portrait of Schumer, who wrote a script that mashes up real-life struggles like her father’s chronic illness with the more broadly caricatured antics of her onstage persona. This movie version of her, also named Amy, is a boozy, pot-smoking writer for a crass men’s magazine called S’nuff. She’s assigned to write a profile of shy knee surgeon Aaron (Bill Hader), who reconstructs the tendons and ligaments of the stars, and during the interview the two fall for each other.
Trouble is, Amy doesn’t fall for people. She sprawls for them, splays for them, and arches over them, all in the name of drunken pleasure. She objectifies her one-night-standees with a rakish wink that would qualify her as a third Wedding Crasher, and like so many charming cads of cinema before her, she adheres to her own strict rules of sex: no sleeping over, no cuddling, nothing personal. The closest thing she has to a relationship is a regular hookup with a poorly closeted muscleman (John Cena), a dim hulk with a sensitive streak who’s a sentient hyperbole of confused masculinity.
Aaron changes that, which sends Amy into a crisis of confidence. She has to reconcile her drinking and drugging with her new role as the allegedly respectable girlfriend of a wealthy, celebrity-adjacent physician, all while dealing with the declining health of her cantankerous father (Colin Quinn), whose ornery hedonism informed her own worldview.
Schumer is a charmer, but she’s an increasingly flummoxing presence. She rose to fame as the acid-tongued beauty who preened in cocktail dresses while peddling naughty punchlines heavily influenced by Sarah Silverman’s wry faux-naïveté. But at some point in the last year or two she’s been crowned the feminist queen of comedy, taking on Hollywood sexism, double-standards, and body-shaming.
And good for her for doing so. Yet anyone with a memory longer than that of a goldfish risks cultural whiplash trying to figure out how Schumer went from being a club comic who used her sexuality to bolster her act to becoming a brave victim who somehow overcame that same sexuality. No doubt it’s a double-edged sword, and the cherubic beauty— she is unmistakably pretty— has surely dealt with more than her share of douchebag producers and casting agents. But being sexy, and largely defining herself by that sexuality in her kinda-one-note standup act, has been her gimmick since the start, and it has worked very well for her. Her TV sketch show has some serious satirical bite, but you can’t help but wonder how much of that is attributable to her ace writing staff that includes more unconventional comics Jessi Klein and Tig Notaro, especially since it boasts dimensions rarely seen in her standup.
Trainwreck, too, has a tendency to go for the quickest, easiest sex joke. But to whatever degree Schumer’s feminist message is clouded onstage, it’s muddled all to hell in Apatow’s movie, which literally finds her doing a reverse Sandra Dee and transforming herself into an all-American cheerleader to please her man. Early in the movie, the Amy character bristles at the conventional life led by her sister (Brie Larson) and brother-in-law (the always-welcome Mike Birbiglia). She sneers at their insipid son and scoffs at the very notion of having kids. Somehow, by the end, not only is she supposed to want all that, but we’re supposed to want it for her.
Yet isn’t the whole reason we think Amy Schumer is funny and iconoclastic is because of the crassness, the brashness, and the unleashed id that makes her a trainwreck? (Maybe the movie is tipping its hand from the outset with its judgmental title.) I wasn’t entirely sold on the notion that Amy Schumer was a decorated culture warrior simply because she gender-flipped the cliché of the male standup obsessed with his own dick— simple inversion is the bluntest form of satire— but I’m positive she’s not doing anyone any favors by suggesting you should pretend to like kids and sports to make your rich doctor boyfriend happy. Even if that rich doctor boyfriend is Bill Hader, who is always fantastic.
Schumer is an appealing, sympathetic performer, which comes through best in her scenes with her onscreen family, realistically bickering with her sister or playing off Colin Quinn, who has deserved a role this good for a long time. Schumer’s razor-edged honesty is at its sharpest when it’s turned on the harsh realities of aging parents, declining health, and financial shortfalls. This feels like her movie, and a place where her and Apatow’s sensibilities logically meet. This, as opposed to the Apatow-spawned rom-com that spends far too much of its already-excessive two-hour running time on tangents about Aaron’s life in the sporting world, bogged down with the stunt casting of LeBron James, Marv Albert, and plenty of other athletes it’s hard to imagine Schumer caring much about.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.