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Underneath the Laughs, ‘Trainwreck’ Is Just Another Regressive Rom Com
For all its wit and unabashed vulgarity, Amy Schumer’s film follows a tired formula
By now Apatow is a comedy plague, popularizing a formula of speciously frank talk about contemporary American mores that never really reckons with our mad culture in any incisive way, and always affirms the dullest, most conventional values in the end.
I laughed a lot at Trainwreck—parts of it, anyway. I should note that I’m an easy laugher. In fact, you might say I’m desperate. I’d walk a mile for a slight chuckle.
So keep that in mind when I say that, though I laughed loudly at a number of points, I didn’t actually like the movie. Halfway through, I was appalled to find myself sitting through a real, genuine, regressive romantic comedy, which is a film genre I’ve avoided like the plague ever since the Nora Ephron scourge began in the late 1980s. Throughout Trainwreck, I kept expecting that its romantic comedy tendencies were all going to get mocked and subverted. Because it’s an Amy Schumer film, right? She wrote it, she stars in it, and as far as I understand her outsized reputation, she generally rips into the clichéd double standards afflicting women’s lives.
Just consider the “Last Fuckable Day,” sketch from a recent episode of her show, Inside Amy Schumer, that went through social media like wildfire. It featured comic actors Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis-Dreyfus ritually celebrating the end of Louis-Dreyfus’ sexual appeal, according to the media. Whereas male actors are “fuckable” into their white-haired dotage, women age out of the “fuckable” category in their forties and thereafter are only eligible to play mothers or “Mrs. Santa Claus,” a part which Fey, Arquette and Louis-Dreyfus discover they all auditioned for (J. Lo got the part).
If that sounds like pretty mild satire, it is. But it’s sharper than most of what Trainwreck has to offer; it trots out platitudinous notions about love, sex and gender with a bizarre lack of scorn.
The Trainwreck of the title refers to Amy Schumer’s character, also named Amy, who drinks a lot, smokes plenty of pot, has a lot of sex with many different men, and works at a vile men’s magazine that publishes articles like “Ugliest Celebrities Under Six.” It is made painfully clear that the sex is part of her dysfunction, like the alcoholism, and will have to be brought under control. After all, her approach to sexual behavior is a legacy from her embittered father who, after breaking up with their mother so he could pursue a more varied sex life, led his little daughters in a chant of “Monogamy isn’t realistic!”
On assignment, Amy interviews a sweet-natured sports doctor named Aaron (Bill Hader) and, in spite of her reluctance, gets drawn into a monogamous relationship. But it’s a rocky road that soon ends in a break-up, explicitly because of her excesses. She’s further punished with a death in the family and career disaster. This all culminates in a scene of Amy sobbing, “I’m not okay—I’m kind of broken,” to her straight-laced sister who’s presented as virtuously married and pregnant.
Cue the montage of the protagonist getting her act together. This includes waltzing into a new job as a writer at Vanity Fair. Hey, all you struggling writers out there, it’s just that easy, if you’ll only stop drinking, smoking pot and having sex with many partners!
Judd Apatow, the director of Trainwreck, likes this kind of montage. See Knocked Up, for example, for the same kind of “maturing” process as the protagonist transforms his life overnight by embracing the Big Three of middle-class respectability: marriage, parenthood and a good, solid job (which he’s in no way qualified for), a job of the sort that is disappearing from America like a fading mirage. By now Apatow is a comedy pestilence, breaking out like a rash everywhere laughs are sought. He’s popularized a formula of profane, speciously frank talk about contemporary American mores that never really reckons with our mad culture in any incisive way, and always affirms the dullest, most conventional values in the end.
I was startled by Trainwreck’s entire plotline. I was under the impression Amy Schumer was a “sex-positive” feminist, bragging about her thriving love life as a single woman who’s not conventionally pretty or thin or “nice.” As she said at the Glamour UK Women of the Year Awards, “I’m probably, like, 160 pounds right now and I can catch a dick whenever I want.” That Schumer made headlines by revealing her actual weight just shows the miserable lack of progress women have made in certain areas.
It’s hard to square that attitude of jolly defiance with traditional romantic comedy. It’s a genre that generally takes an initially humorous view of heterosexual love, then plunges deep into melodramatic scenes late in the narrative, to show that, though we jest about it, monogamous union leading swiftly to traditional marriage and children is a deadly serious, vitally necessary thing, and no laughing matter at all. The audience snuffles through these weepy scenes about the freakish loneliness that threaten all unmarrieds, right before the big gush of publicly declared love in the finale that brings the couple back together for joyous laughs and makes it all better. That’s absolutely standard for the genre.
Trainwreck does all those things without a glimmer of subversion. It made me realize I’ve developed a new tic at the movies: I find myself raising both my hands involuntarily and shrugging at the screen in a WTF gesture of disbelief. (My apologies to the people behind me in the theater.) Instead of thumbs-up or thumbs-down, I give this movie a rating of four out of a possible five WTFs.
It’s ghastly to realize that what’s been done with Trainwreck is to flip the old Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedy gender roles, only to find that the woman is still somehow stuck in the no-fun role.
If you recall, in movies such as Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, Doris Day played the virginal career woman who wants to get married yet has a big problem—her moribund love life. (Never clear why she couldn’t find anyone exciting to date till Rock’s character came along, unless it was just because dating was always appalling.) Rock Hudson played a rampant bachelor living it up in every way city life allows, mixing business with pleasure and enjoying everything to the hilt. The tension involved whether he could manage to seduce her using various elaborate strategies before she could get him to fall in love with and marry her, giving up his hedonistic bachelorhood.
“Why WOULD he?” was always the burning question, sometimes asked aloud by Rock’s character himself. Then some other character, usually Tony Randall playing his best friend, counseled him in some comically incoherent way that he must give up the joys of bachelorhood because that’s what men have to do, even if it wrecks their lives.
In Trainwreck, Amy is playing Rock’s live-it-up “bachelor” role, except that there’s no affirmation of it as a terrific time. She has more rotten sex than good, she teeters around in tight constricting mini-skirts and crippling high heels, she does the morning after “walk of shame” looking genuinely miserable, she guzzles liquor and sucks weed joylessly, and her job’s awful. She’s living out her mean-bastard father’s philosophy of sex, and look how he ended up? Alone in a nursing home making repetitively nasty cracks and further alienating everyone.
Whereas Aaron, playing the semi-virginal Doris-like character inclined toward marriage and children, is leading an enviable life. He has the great career, the loyal best friend in LeBron James, and the celebrity-studded high life, complete with famous patients, awards for philanthropy and invitations to gala events around town.
Trainwreck makes it seem as if the romantic comedy game is rigged against the woman whether she’s playing Rock or Doris. You’d think Amy Schumer would be inclined to point that out somehow, and makes it central to the workings of the film. But no—past a certain point, the film’s narrative is a long, drawn-out romantic comedy plod presented without irony. During the emotional parts, a soft, sincere guitar theme plays that almost made me bolt out of the theater.
Still, there are laughs, even if you have to suffer for them. Laughs are no small thing in these tough times.
Bill Hader and LeBron James are quite funny as unlikely friends. James plays himself as fussy and absurdly protective of his friend, and also as a rich man who refuses to pick up the lunch check because splitting it evenly down to the last penny is “better for our friendship.” (If you have any rich buddies, you might recognize this syndrome.) The two play hilarious one-on-one basketball in a way that’s presented as part of their routine, as hopelessly impractical as it is, with LeBron towering over Aaron, effortlessly blocking every shot.
And Tilda Swinton is a wonder as Amy’s boss, a vicious spray-tanned Brit who tells Amy shortly after the traumatic death of a close relative, “Are you still talking about this? That was EIGHT DAYS AGO.”
As for Amy Schumer herself, as a writer and a performer, I’m a bit dubious overall. That time-travel sketch from Inside Amy Schumer was a hoot, but still, she’s overhyped, and shoved insistently at women especially as a figure we’re obligated to embrace. And in my view, it’s no good sign that she moved so easily into Judd Apatow’s orbit. His film comedies have gone steadily downhill since The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and he consistently promotes, in his capacities as producer/director/mentor, trends and performers that I hate, which infect the media with the persistence of herpes—mumblecore, Girls, Lena Dunham, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill.
The Apatow specialty seems to be toothless satire, using the slight shock factors of showy comic nudity, sexuality and raw language to distract audiences from his deadly reaffirmation of the status quo. So Trainwreck is “a Judd Apatow film,” all right, just like the credit says.
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Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of the book Filmsuck, USA. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.