WASHINGTON, Sept. 5, 2015 – It’s funny to think what a year’s difference can make in the perception of a movie.
If “Trainwreck” had been put into development a year earlier than it was, the buzz surrounding this film would have been more about how lead actress Amy Schumer could be an up-and-coming star and someone the rest of the world should watch.
Instead, this summer’s release of “Trainwreck,” still playing at local theaters, is the culmination and validation of Schumer’s now obvious ascent to stardom. It seems fitting as well that “Trainwreck” deals so closely with the evolution of Schumer’s on-screen persona as she morphs from a relatively well-known comedian into an actual star in her own right.
At this moment, Amy Schumer may very well be one of the most recognizable comedic faces in the country. But it’s only over the last year that this has happened. That may seem a little contradictory, since she’s already had a show on Comedy Central for over two years.
But that show and her profile became more culturally relevant over the past year as her skits and her stand-up routines have garnered more widespread attention than ever before.
That said, she’s had few actual credits to her name to this point, meaning one can validly draw a line from her stand-up work to her show to her hit film without much in the middle to divert attention. That’s key to the importance of “Trainwreck,” because the entire movie hinges not only on her comedy, but on how well the audience accepts her as a likeable lead.
Schumer aside, another key force behind the success of “Trainwreck” is the excellent behind-the-camera work of director Judd Apatow. His interest and involvement in the film was one of the reasons it got made. Further, his directorial style provides a big assist to comedians turned actors, an approach that fits perfectly with Schumer’s general sensibilities.
The Apatow touch gives each of his films a chance to sink or swim based on its leading star, and he clearly had a winner in Schumer. What’s also interesting here, however, is that this is the first film Apatow’s directed where he isn’t also credited as the writer. In spite of this, his fingerprints are all over the narrative anyway. And that’s a plus.
For all their brashness and improv-based comedy, Apatow movies have a habit of following generally accepted romantic comedy traditions – in some cases almost to the letter – without ever really subverting them, even though it sometimes feels that way. The reason is that the outer look and feel of an Apatow movie are different from those of a normal romcom, primarily due to his non-traditional leads – most notably, Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up,” and to a certain extent Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck.”
In addition, Apatow films strongly adhere to stand-up style comedy bits and consistent improv characteristics. Yet in the end, his films end up following very similar formulas that adhere to a lot of familiar tropes while exposing the flaws in the way those tropes are constructed within the genre.
“Trainwreck” doesn’t veer from this course at all, despite setting out to establish a somewhat different tone from what an audience familiar with romcoms might expect, although in fairness, audiences that tend to show up for Apatow films are not necessarily traditional romcom fans.
“Trainwreck” opens by promoting both its lead character Amy (played by Amy Schumer) and her general theory on life, as imprinted on her by her father Gordon (Colin Quinn) during the time when his marriage fell apart.
The opening montage in which Schumer details her character’s life is also a part of her stand-up comedy gig, emphasizing how promiscuous she is. Amy (the character) likewise doesn’t believe in monogamy as a general principle. The idea of a long-term romantic relationship doesn’t make sense to her in any lasting way.
Movies thrive on conflict and change, however, and Amy’s attitude changes when she’s assigned to write a magazine feature on Bill Hader’s character Aaron, who is a high-profile sports surgeon. In typical, classic romcom style, their introductory meeting is a disaster. But considering that their encounter is actually imposed on them – albeit somewhat organically –they eventually grow fond of each other and begin dating, ending the first act of the film.
During their initial courtship, other issues lurk in Amy’s life. The biggest of these involves her father, who has developed multiple sclerosis during the time her romance unfolds. As he’s being bundled up and shipped off to a nursing home, Amy and her sister Kim (Brie Larson) commit themselves to at least getting him through this stage of his life, although each takes a decidedly different approach.
At the same time, Amy’s workplace is the focal point for a number of small gags, some of which develop more fully as the film progresses, adding to its complexity. For the most part, however, the success of these scenes depends on whether the audience appreciates or can stomach cruelty for the sake of comedy. In some ways, they actually clutter the plot.
The growing tension in “Trainwreck” begins at this point, not only for the characters but for the tone of the film itself. That’s because the movie is generally focused on Amy’s love life and how that is affecting her outlook on life. The narrative line clearly means to position Aaron as a key force in her life journey, confronting her for the first time with a man she actually wants to date. Aaron is the type of guy who wants a relationship and appears to be cordial and nice when it comes to this project.
It’s here that the film’s narrative line fumbles a bit. After we glimpse the early, budding romance of Amy and Aaron, the film runs through a quick montage of what happens next, only picking up the story again when things inevitably start falling apart. We just don’t get a sense of why this happens because we lack detail.
For the audience, the fast, gloss-over montage provides no real evidence for why the relationship initially worked. We miss the development. Our belief or disbelief instead hinges entirely on the likeability of Schumer and Hader.
Both characters are likeable, to be sure. But we’re not given much more reason an audience should care about their inevitable break-up. Likewise, the scaffolding that would provide a rationale for their getting back together again is never evident. The film seems to be saying, this couple looks good and together can make the audience laugh; therefore, the need for the audience to invest in them should be self-evident.
What makes this an even bigger issue is that there are other well-crafted and articulated relationships within the film that are pushed aside for the movie’s weak third act involving Amy and Aaron, of course. The most important of these secondary romantic narratives is the relationship between Amy and her sister Kim, and their complicated relationship with their father. There is actually more time spent on this issue in the first act than on anything that has to do with Amy and Aaron.
Amy and Kim nurture long-standing resentments involving each other as well as their father and his role in shaping each of their lives. Amy indulges in equal levels of disdain and resentment regarding the way Kim had gotten married, taking on her husband’s son as her own. But the major conflict involves each sister’s diametrically opposed attitudes toward their father. Amy treats him as a mostly benevolent force while Kim sees him only as a burden. Both have their reasons, ultimately pushing Amy into a downward spiral.
There’s a lot of material to unpack between the two sisters. Schumer’s and Larson’s chemistry is the main reason why it all works, as all of it seems genuinely organic rather than arising from forced sitcom-style set-ups, an issue that affects much of this film’s comic side-acts.
Even so, however, this film’s otherwise effective sister act is undermined by the way their reconciliation is casually tossed aside at the film’s conclusion, which doesn’t really address some of the real issues raised earlier, including the effects of Amy’s somewhat destructive behavior.
That’s because the film also attempts to establish Amy as an addict. But, as with most comedies, when it actually comes to the point of personal epiphany, the film plays this for broad comedy without requiring Amy or the narrative to do any heavy lifting. Alcoholism is an element of Amy’s character that is talked about more often than it’s shown. When she does attempt to clean up her act, it comes off as more of a joke, and isn’t really built into a serious part of the film’s conclusion.
The film’s increasing narrative confusion and lack of focus leads to its surprisingly unsatisfying third act. It’s a finale that’s capped off by a distracting and enjoyable end set piece. But it doesn’t have much to do with what we might have expected when the film began.
It’s this sort of thing that has been a very big issue with Apatow films in the past. His first two acts rarely connect to the narrative line that wraps up the third stanza. In this case, the emphasis of the film’s first two-thirds strongly focuses on Amy’s destructive personality and her iffy relationship with her family. But then the entire third act deals with how her relationship with Aaron falls only to rise again.
How do we follow an indecisive narrative arc like this? What’s more important—working things out with blood relations, or finding redemption in an authentic romance? Or are these two plotlines even linked.
Apatow’s narrative confusion is ultimately what holds “Trainwreck” back from being a much better movie. While the film attempts to tell the audience what the major conflicts actually are, that attempt is contradicted by what the audience is actually watching on screen.
By the time Amy and Aaron are united again in Madison Square Garden for the movie’s grand finale, the movie has spun itself around in several different directions to resolve a problem that should never have been the focal point of the movie.
That’s really unfortunate. There’s a dynamic and genuinely funny movie at the core of this “Trainwreck.” Better yet, Amy Schumer more than holds her own in her first major leading film role. Her co-stars are excellent-to-charming. But everyone in this talented cast is propping up a fairly flawed movie that contorts itself to fit any number of comic-romance conventions, making it a far less important and original film than it was clearly meant to be.