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Non-Review Review: Trainwreck

Trainwreck is a refreshing romantic comedy, a collaboration that plays to the strengths of both lead and writer Amy Schumer and director Judd Apatow. The comedy follows a young woman who learnt from an early age (through inappropriate doll metaphors) that “monogamy doesn’t work.” Amy is very much a female version of the arrested adolescent character that Apatow helped to popularise in mainstream American comedy, the immature adult who has yet to face any real personal or professional responsibility.

In some respects, Trainwreck is a continuation of a comedy trend that began with Bridesmaids, realising that male characters did not hold a monopoly on emotional disaster zones. Female characters are just as likely to exercise poor judgment and make questionable personal decisions. If Apatow figured out how to keep the romantic comedy fresh by tweaking the mental age and emotional stability of the male lead, then his collaboration with Schumer does something similar by swapping the gender dynamics.

Hold me.

Hold me.

The basic character and emotional arcs have not changed. After all, the romantic comedy can really only have one of two outcomes; they live happily ever after, or they don’t. Trainwreck charts the same course as The 40-Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, which basically followed the same arcs as When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle. For all the novelty of swapping the gender roles in the Apatowian comedy, Trainwreck is not particularly subversive or deconstructive.

Rather, Trainwreck is a stellar execution of a very traditional form. It is not a comedy that defies conventions or upsets expectations; it hits virtually every major beat that story like this can be expected to hit. It benefits from a rather wonderful collaboration of a writer (and actress) with a sharp eye for millennial humour working alongside a director who understands the mechanics of the genre intuitively. Trainwreck is perhaps the best mainstream romantic comedy that Hollywood has produced in quite some time.

Everything is on track...

Everything is on track…

Trainwreck is not revolutionary. Those expecting something radical or provocative might be better served to look elsewhere. The movie’s trajectory is familiar and safe. Amy is a young woman whose life is spiralling out of control, lost in a wasteland of alcohol and meaningless sex; inevitably, she encounters a charming sports doctor named Aaron. Amy finds herself warming to Aaron as more than just a one-night stand; she sleeps over at his place, and panics when he rings her the following morning. Gradually, Amy finds herself falling in love.

There is certainly an argument to be made that Trainwreck‘s narrative is conservative in tone; that Amy’s promiscuity is treated by the narrative as a problem to be corrected, that the script suggests Amy’s casual attitudes towards sex are something that she needs to move beyond. At its heart, Trainwreck is the story of a young woman who meets a good man and has to figure out if she is willing to settle down with him. There are all manner of potentially problematic readings of that set-up.

No scrubs...

No scrubs…

These criticisms are perfectly reasonable, but they are offset by a number of factors. The most obvious is that the nature of the genre means that Trainwreck will push Amy towards a fulfilling conventional romance; it is very hard to build a “romantic” comedy without any romance. Were the gender roles in Trainwreck reversed, were it a promiscuous male character settling down, the narrative arc would likely be less problematic. Then again, there have always been double standards that exist in the way pop culture treats male and female sexuality.

More than that, though, Amy Schumer’s script is smart enough to mitigate that potentially awkward reading of the script. It is made clear that Amy has problems that are more fundamental than those related to sex or romance; those problems might find expression in her attitudes towards hooking up, but they run deeper. Trainwreck makes it clear that Amy has issues with alcohol and with basic interpersonal interaction. These are the elements that make her the eponymous “trainwreck” more than her one night stands or hook-ups.

A couple of kooks, caught up in romance...

A couple of kooks, caught up in romance…

While Amy is the movie’s protagonist, the script does suggest that the burden is not only on herself to change. As the narrative’s driving force, Amy get more attention than Aaron, but it is made clear that Aaron also has his own issues to work through in order to build a happy relationship. His character arc is a lot fuzzier, because this is not his film. Nevertheless, Schumer’s script suggests that both of characters involved in the relationship have to mature in their own ways for this to work.

Schumer’s script is one of the selling points of Trainwreck. The basic structure of the film will be familiar to anybody who has watched a romantic comedy ever. However, the joy of Trainwreck is watching Schumer’s script work within that framework. A lot of Schumer’s television comedy sensibilities come through. Most notably, Schumer employs the sitcom cliché of playing a character who shares her first name, but she also builds a lot of anecdotal comedy into the script. There is a scene at a baby shower taken direct from her stand-up. (The “Connecticut Friends” bit.)

Perfect to a "tea"?

Perfect to a “tea”?

As much as the film has an arc, the comedy is largely situation and episodic. This is most obvious in a recurring gag about an arthouse black-and-white film named “The Dogwalker”, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marissa Tomei. The comedy is very broad satire that plays like an independent film as skewered by somebody who has never actually watched an independent film. ((500) Days of Summer does a similar sequence to much better effect.) The film is structured to keep the laughs coming, knowing that the romcom framework will handle the story.

The film keeps the jokes coming at a fantastic pace, making sure that Trainwreck just keeps moving. Even the obligatory romcom beats are handled with flair and self-awareness; the obligatory “falling in love” montage features commentary that draws awareness to cheesiness of the storytelling device, and climaxes (ha!) with a one-two punch of a Woody Allen joke and some oral sex humour. Trainwreck walks a fine line between being earnest and being crass, never shying from genuine emotional sentiment or awkward racial/sexual/political humour.

A good sport...

A good sport…

There is undoubtedly much to be said about the sexual and gender politics of Trainwreck. As much as Trainwreck just flips the gender dynamics of the traditional Apatowian comedy, there is something striking about building a comedy like this around a female character. (Even Bridesmaids was rooted in more traditional gender roles.) Given the double standards that do exist in how audiences (and commentators) react to male and female characters, it seems inevitable that Trainwreck would generate considerable discussion and discourse.

Indeed, its portrayal of male characters is also worthy of discussion. As much as Amy is characterised in terms that audiences have come to expect of male characters in modern comedy, Aaron and other male characters are portrayed in a way that is perhaps traditionally feminine. Aaron is sensitive, compassionate, passive-aggressive, repressed. Driven by his work and his desire to be taken seriously professionally, he is characterised as “boring” throughout the film in contrast to the more adventurous Amy. He enjoys watching Downton Abbey with LeBron James.

Swinton is totally boss.

Swinton is totally boss.

In way, it is interesting to note how gender portrayals in Hollywood romance have changed over time. Trainwreck‘s portrayal of an “arrested adolescent” female romantic lead and a “boring and safe professional” male character is itself a reverse of the Apatow dynamic typified by Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up. However, that was in itself arguably a response to the old-fashioned “free-spirited and idealistic” female lead who teaches the “stuck in the mud” male character how to relax, as perhaps exemplified by Dharma and Greg.

Pop culture tends to move in cycles, and it is intriguing how Trainwreck suggests that there has been some evolution in moving through the full circle. Amy is allowed to be aggressive and juvenile in a way that traditionally “free-spirited and idealistic” female characters like Dharma were not. Amy is afforded the same sexual liberties given to male characters, something that would have been very difficult to imagine in a major summer comedy from a big studio even a decade earlier.

The ball's in his court...

The ball’s in his court…

Schumer is no stranger to this larger context. While Trainwreck is undoubtedly a more commercial and mainstream project than the comedian’s work on sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, Schumer has already demonstrated a keen ability to hit on important topics while still remaining consistently hilarious. Trainwreck is a film that will prompt discussion and debate about attitudes towards portrayals of female characters, but Schumer knows that these points are best dealt with through a script that is consistently funny and sharply observed.

Schumer’s script is entrusted to Apatow, who has assembled a pretty impressive ensemble. The casting of is superb. Schumer always had a gift for comic timing, but she also demonstrates pretty solid dramatic range. Bill Hader plays beautifully against type as a romantic lead. Even the supporting cast is carefully and meticulously put together. It is hard to pick a “most valuable player” from the movie’s deep bench; John Cena and LeBron James prove to have a wonderful knack for comedy, but Tilda Swinton is delightfully unhinged as Amy’s boss.

On the mat...

On the mat…

Trainwreck is one of the best comedies of the year, and one of the best mainstream romantic comedies in quite some time. Well worth a look.

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One Response

  1. Great review Darren, you make a lot of good points.

    I think its interesting that we have seen a recent shift in “arrested adolescent” female protagonists (the Lake Bell/Simon Pegg film ‘Man Up’ had a similar dynamic.) Compare it with a more traditional yet still fairly recent womanchild film: ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’ with Isla Fisher. In that film the heroine is almost ultrafeminised with her hundreds of shoes and essentially passive, stumbling her way into growing up more or less by accident. Even ‘Bridesmaids’ as you mention had a lot of traditional gendering in it – the heroine owned a cake shop!

    I wonder if Apatow was more impressed by Katherine Heigl’s critique of ‘Knocked Up’ than he let on at the time. Anyway I wasn’t familiar with Amy Schumer before this but I really enjoyed this film.

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