The romantic comedy is a moribund genre, worn down by years of formulaic pap that threatens to wash away the few diamonds in the rough. Part of their fading appeal is the ironclad tropes that they rely on, which also means that so many romcoms relentlessly hit the same story beats.
Successful comedy is different in that it relies on surprise above all else. To do so, it constantly needs an influx of new blood in order to survive (or inexaustable sources of wisdom like Louis C.K. or George Carlin). Enter Amy Schumer, a firebrand comedian that’s made waves in recent years with her razor sharp stand-up and incredible Comedy Central show that bears her name.
Even with that swell of success behind her, it can still be tough to make the leap from comedian to movie star (just ask Andrew Dice Clay, or better yet don’t). With the bold and brash Trainwreck (even the name seems to bait potential critics), Schumer makes it looks downright easy, bringing along veteran comedy guru Judd Apatow as director and helping to reinvigorate his career in the process.
Written by Schumer herself, Trainwreck feels at once deeply personal yet instantly relatable. There’s an affable, easy-going charm that she brings to the screen, making the well-trod story of a young New York-based woman finding her way in love and life seem new and fresh (not an easy feat). She plays Amy (naturally), an early 30’s young professional who writes for a men’s magazine (“S’Nuff”). Her incorrigible father (Colin Quinn) taught her at an inappropriately young age that monogamy isn’t realistic (using an extended doll metaphor) and she’s taken that lesson to heart, spending her hard-partying nights burning through one-night stands at a quick clip. These scenes immediately signal that Trainwreck isn’t the usual romcom, as they’re presented free of judgement (reverse the sexes and it wouldn’t be unusual) and simply show a woman with a healthy appetite for sex (and shots and weed).
Amy begins the film in a semi-serious relationship with a character played by John Cena, as the wrestler-turned-actor proves his talent for comedy and his inability to talk dirty (lots of protein references). The rapid fire pace of the early moments is riotous and unrelenting, with the only slowdown occurring in the riffing scenes that Apatow is so well-known for. The sharper comedy seems to be the more deliberate jokes that are based in character as opposed to the non-sequitur improvs that occasionally slow the pace.
No matter, the movie hums along fine and quickly establishes Amy’s world. The great Brie Larson appears as Amy’s sister Kim, a more responsible mirror version of herself who’s settled down with the bland Tom (another great standup, Mike Birbiglia, in what becomes a running theme). Vanessa Bayer (SNL) and Randall Park (Kim Jong Un from The Interview) are well cast as Amy’s terrible work friends, while a near-unrecognizable Tilda Swinton plays Amy’s awful boss.
But it’s Bill Hader who Amy really gets to bounce off of. When Swinton sends Amy on assignment to interview straight-laced sports doctor Aaron (Hader), the movie really locks in and shows its intentions. It’s about a talented woman who can be irresponsible, fun-loving and crass, and the more uptight guy that she falls for. The difference here is that one doesn’t change to meet the other – they both bend to fit in each other’s world. The square Aaron brags to his best friend LeBron James (playing a amusingly reserved version of himself) that he went out drinking all night, scandalizing the Downton Abbey-loving James, and conversely Amy is shocked that she gets a considerate call back from Aaron the day after they sleep together (“Is he sick? Was it a butt-dial?”).
The tightrope that Trainwreck walks is that it doesn’t want or need to invalidate Amy’s experiences leading up to her meet-cute with Aaron. It can’t simply be “this is how she was, and this is what she changed” because that’s too binary and regressive. Now it is a movie so she does needs to go through some sort of change, but the point is not to admonish her for her past, but to move her incrementally forward while still keeping her the same flawed, loveable, hilarious character at her core.
Colin Quinn as Amy’s dad helps this journey immeasurably, as his cantankerous cad of a character is both entertaining and a blaring warning sign to Amy that she can’t see. Their interactions are some of the best in the film, even though Hader and Schumer play off of each other well too. There are wall-to-wall laughs, but responsibility, freedom, and yes, gender equality are all subjects that are tackled with a deft touch too. Some of the themes may be obvious when you see them written out plainly, but rest assured that the movie weaves them in with care and wit.
And that’s probably the film’s biggest triumph of all – that Trainwreck can ressurrect the seemingly dead romcom by both paying homage to and subverting the genre’s numerous clichés (there’s a great shot that combines the New York skyline with a lewd public sex act). The fact that Amy Schumer is incredible in the lead role doesn’t hurt either, as she proves capable not only of gut-busting comedy (obviously) but surprisingly adept at hitting the emotional beats.
The movie serves as something of a resurgence for director Apatow as well, bringing him out of the funk of his last two navel-gazing films (the okay Funny People and the underwhelming This Is 40) and rivalling The 40 Year-Old Virgin as his best film yet. His camera is still stationary for the most part (making the film often visually bland), but the on-screen talent provides enough energy to fill the void. Trainwreck proves to be anything but, and is a layered, vibrant romcom that reclaims that label as something positive and portends great things for its star.
Director: Judd Apatow
Runtime: 125 minutes