‘Trainwreck’ Is (Sometimes) Great and (Almost) Lives Up to High Expectations
Trainwreck, the first movie written by and starring Amy Schumer, feels almost exactly like hanging out with a trainwreck.
A lot of my favorite people, even some of my favorite selves, are trainwrecks — which are here defined as women who are fairly likely to wake up in all their clothes with a phone full of unfamiliar numbers and stolen street sign at the foot of their bed. Spending time with enjoyable monsters of this stripe means laughing a lot, maybe crying a little. Drinks are drunk, unsayable things are said and, if we’re all lucky, the night ends with a semi-coordinated dance. Afterwards, though, I leave with lots and lots of questions: about the logic behind their choices, and my choices; about how that one guy showed up and the realism of our ideas about the world and why I hung around for so long. I wake up the next morning feeling a little regretful, a little confused, a little like I might have claimed things in the name of feminism that had less to do with the aims of that philosophy and more to do with my personal needs and wants — but I always want to see (or, come on, be) these women again. They’re cool, they’re not judgmental, and they value fun. Plus, I want to see what they’ll do next.
The promise of having a fun lush be the romcom heroine in a big studio movie, the opportunity to humorously deal with female problems that are more real and more transgressive than “my commitment-phobic boyfriend is such a slob” or “I have to be the bridesmaid in so many weddings!,” the idea that one woman would be both the actual maker-of-jokes and the actual getter-of-the dude: these things all feel like such a step.
And Amy Schumer: well, I love seeing our current reigning queen of ladies who go hard and profane get to play one on the big screen. I have zero interest in impugning her. That’s mostly because of Inside Amy Schumer, which is goddamn often perfect1, but it’s not all. For one thing, there’s the simple fact that there are a lot of voices behind Inside Amy Schumer that helped to make it the iconic feminist show it is; voices like Jessi Klein’s and Christine Nangle’s and Tig Notaro’s and Gabe Liedman’s and many other people. For another, she is great in this — sparkly and funny and magnetic and star-like. But mostly because I truly chafe against the idea that — because she is, at the moment, America’s favorite funny lady — Schumer is personally responsible for pushing the envelope to wherever it is we want the envelope to go, that she should definitely never ever have done anything questionable to get there2 and she should definitely not make a single risky misstep now that we’re all watching. She’s not responsible for completing feminism, and, even if she was (she’s not), she’s done her share. No one carries the whole mantle. If she carries it far here, then we can afford to keep chanting and pick it up, and not waste too too much time measuring the distance between her and the finish line.
All that, plus I had a blast for long stretches of this movie. If that was all that mattered, we’d be done here. Cut, print, “Amy played a human woman, I laughed a lot, thank you please” — a lady, Splitsider. Truly. So I almost hesitate to ask for much more too soon; I’m a girl, we never get raises. But I do want to ask for more, on a few fronts — and then I want to go back to what was special and possible about Trainwreck.
The biggest problem with Trainwreck’s particular messiness is that it doesn’t remotely end with the character of Amy (the main character’s name is Amy, keep up); it shows up in every aspect of the movie. There’s the sloppiness of the script, which takes on too much and then doesn’t always deliver when you need it to. There’s the haphazardness of the edit, which drops plotlines in and out with abandon. There’s the disorganization in the direction, which, with a runtime of slightly over two hours, is classically Judd Apatow. (So many movie reviewers are like Apatovian girlfriends, sweet and devoted but nag and nag and nag for one thing: that his movies be shorter; while the movies are Apatovian heroes who never never learn.) The movie is just not tight (heh).
Like, why is Bill Hader’s Dr. Aaron Connors’ central friendship with one out-of-town basketball player (LeBron James, who is as good as you heard) but Aaron’s career-making, late-in-the-film surgery be with another, local player (Amar’e Stoudemire)? Wouldn’t the stakes be higher, and the introductions less confusing, and the acting more LeBron (again, a delight) if Aaron was operating on his Cleveland buddy? And why do we bother with anything that happens with John Cena’s character, especially the he’s-latently-gay-but-not-even-really-latently-because-he-has-Grindr-so-what-is-happening running gag, which doesn’t pay off (good, tbh) and feels shipped in from a lesser past? And why is there a cameo-laden scene super late in the movie that had audience members asking, “Is that famous guy playing himself, or not? In the fancy suit, is he him? Or is he he LeBron’s agent? Why is that suit so fancy? Did they mention him before? And who is that blonde lady?” I’ll help you: he is playing himself and she’s a sports person.
But the negative that quickly becomes a positive if you squint at it hard enough, Magic-Eye style, is the whole idea of a Trainwreck.
The feminist icon ascension of Amy Schumer has been striking because Schumer started out in the Chelsea Handler mode, which seems to believe that being a woman who belongs in AA and takes dick with a resilient smile is the best way to flip off the status quo. This type of woman is an old archetype, but she’s also incredibly real.
Character Amy makes a lot of the same kind of jokes as Standup Amy, about her promiscuity and love of alcohol. On stage or in the context of Inside Amy Schumer, they’re hilarious, if limiting. In the regular world, these jokes can work well too — so well that they become something a person defines herself by. And in the regular world, or the movie version of the regular world, as Character Amy attends baby showers or goes on first dates or sits in meetings at work, they’re limiting too. They’re got-there-first gags, because while drinking and smoking and boning are fun, being understood as The Kind of Woman Who Does Those Things, and the judgments and expectations that go along with that, often isn’t. Therapists (I assume, I didn’t interview one for this review) refer to this shit as a “defense mechanism.”
So, spoiler alert: about two thirds of the way through the movie, Amy and Aaron have a big fight and break up, and this fight is partially about how she is or has been a difficult case when it comes to men and intoxication. No, I know, I was also shocked, I thought that her titular behavior would not back up on her in any way. And more spoiler-y spoiler: they eventually make up. Among all the third act met expectations and bloated-runtime-induced boredom, there’s a moment of disconnection that speaks to a truth that usually doesn’t come up in RomComs.
Amy and Aaron aren’t really at odds because she’s banged a lot of dudes and smokes weed all day; they’re at odds because, despite caring about her and wanting to accept her for who she is, Aaron has feelings about those things, and wants to discuss them. But Amy doesn’t want to talk. Or doesn’t know how.
When the man she loves tells her that he feels weird about her lifestyle, her face crumples in. Her mouth gets tiny and tight, her eyes close, her light goes out, she shrinks. Between this and an eulogy scene, Schumer turns out to be an impressive dramatic actress. You can feel that Character Amy doesn’t hear in Aaron’s voice that this is the beginning, not the end, of a conversation; you can see her give up. She doesn’t think that boning and blazing are just things she has done that upset Aaron; she thinks these things make up who she is.
This moment is so real and good and valuable. It flies in the face of the women-want-to-talk, men-hate-communication stereotype that plagues not just our pop culture but our relationships. It shows something true and rarely discussed about the moments at which women can close off or shut down (which is to say, during emotional times, just like dudes do). The thing we most want from an Amy Schumer RomCom is a mistaken-ridden heroine who doesn’t get judged or shamed for her behavior, who doesn’t have to radically change and pull a reverse-Sandy-from-Grease. And this moment doesn’t judge or shame her, but it recognizes and empathizes with self-judgment. The party girl persona can limit a person’s self-image; Character Amy is more than a trainwreck, but she doesn’t know that.
The dream outcome of this specific fight is just too simple: Aaron just wants to talk, and talking is healthy and communicative, so they should talk. It’s not sexy and it’s not how a romcom ends, but taking an archetype that has always been maligned and slapping on a standard Hollywood ending doesn’t feel like a satisfying redemption, either.
It is a movie, though, and you can only ask so much. Plus, you can assume that the talk happens after the splashy dance sequence. And the splashy dance sequence is great! Everyone I saw it with laughed and cheered and forgot that the last 30 minutes of dragging, get-to-it, no-one-prints-out-an-article-and-hands-it-to-a-magazine-publisher business had even happened. It was cool, and it didn’t judge, and it valued fun. And anyways, I don’t regret it. I want to see what she does next.
1The Guardian questioning Amy’s “racial blindspot”: utterly fair. The Washington Post detracting her supporters without having watched her set: absurd and opportunist.
2“Twelve Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” for Governor, “Rape in the Military Video Game” for President.