Judd Apatow’s filmmaking style is either generous or lazy, depending on your vantage point. To a one, his movies run too long, with individual scenes stretching past their comedy expiration time, zany supporting players and celebrity cameos filling out (or overstuffing) the ensemble, ideas and themes and conventions and subversions jockeying for space. You leave one of his movies feeling sated – sometimes satisfyingly so, but other times like the feeling you get when you eat a little too much, a little too fast.
This comedy of excess makes for an awkward fit with the simultaneous goal of launching a young up-and-comer’s career as a movie star. The rise of Amy Schumer – as an actress, a character, a persona and a brand – is one of the big stories of Trainwreck, Apatow’s fifth directorial feature.
Until this year, Schumer’s IMDb page listed just two movie roles: “Lila” in the obscure 2012 comedy Price Check, and “Woman #1” in the Steve Carell-Keira Knightley drama “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” Both of those movies came out just before the launch of Inside Amy Schumer, a Comedy Central sketch series that Schumer has likened to her version of Louie, in which Louis C.K. uses every filmmaking technique and story structure at his disposal to filter his ideas into digestible half-hours of television.
Inside Amy Schumer has gotten good press since it debuted, but it’s taken off this year. Schumer just earned her first Emmy nomination for her acting in the show, and media outlets seem to have slotted Schumer in the same position as John Oliver, whose video clips are plastered across the Internet in case anyone doesn’t want to take the trouble to type a few letters in a YouTube search box.
Schumer’s comedy is heavily focused on issues of sex, relationships and body image. Her writing is often laced with profanity and tinged with millennial tics. She’s talented on camera but perhaps even more so in the writers’ room, where she concocted the ambitious “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” an episode-length sketch festooned with celebrities, filmed as a loving homage to Sidney Lumet’s classic legal thriller and focused on deconstructing whether Schumer is attractive enough for television. Though she only appears it for one of its 22 minutes, that sketch represents a fully-formed thesis on the appeal of Amy Schumer’s comedy.
Trainwreck has been pitched as a similarly unfiltered exploration of Schumer for the feature-film crowd, but it’s closer in shape to a scattered list of Schumer’s assets (she’d laugh at my use of that word) grafted onto a polarizing cinematic tradition. The movie is funny often, sharp at times and touching occasionally. It’s not perfect, economical or tightly constructed, and it’s not as subversive as Schumer’s series, except when it is.
Schumer, who also wrote the script, plays Amy, a magazine journalist in her 30s assigned to profile Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor on the rise. Amy likes having sex, abhors intimacy in her sexual relationships and fears commitment and betrayal. Aaron isn’t a heartthrob, but he’s sturdy, smart and silly. They meet for an interview, Aaron takes a liking to her, she balks and the movie’s dance begins.
As written above, that’s a description for a standard-issue romantic comedy of a kind that Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in making anymore. And indeed, Trainwreck is not quite that movie, even though part of it seems to wish it were. You can see Schumer’s personal vision sprawled out across the screen throughout the film. Brie Larson plays Amy’s sister Kim, based on Schumer’s real-life sister Kim, who’s younger but already married to a nice guy (Mike Birbiglia) with a son from a previous marriage. Colin Quinn plays Amy’s father Gordon, who suffers from multiple sclerosis just as Schumer’s father Gordon does. And you can read the movie’s narrative thread about Amy figuring out her identity as a commentary on Schumer honing her onscreen persona.
Because it’s an Apatow film, there’s a lot more plot summary. Aaron’s best friend is the basketball star LeBron James, played by the basketball LeBron James, who has fun with his image and seems genuinely comfortable on camera, sowing the seeds for his upcoming film pursuits. Amy’s boss Dianna is an icy, manipulative British witch, which means she can only be played by Tilda Swinton, so unrecognizable that I knew ahead of time she would be in the movie and still couldn’t figure out who she was until the credits rolled. Lowly magazine intern Donald (Ezra Miller, The Flash!) turns out to be far more trouble than anyone bargained for. John Cena gets the movie’s biggest laughs as a big lug who Amy dates and then ditches, much to his chagrin. No less than three current Saturday Night Live cast members appear, including a pothead and a Ghostbuster.
It’s a lot to take in, and we haven’t even started talking about the movie’s ideas yet. It has many, not all of which cohere. The sex positivity of the first half, in which Amy sleeps with whom she wishes and doesn’t feel especially bad about her choices, eventually gives way to something more mature, and harder to place. It’s not that Amy suddenly rejects her old lifestyle, or decides that sex is wrong. But she sacrifices some part of her former self in order to embrace a relationship with a man who likes her in a way few others have tried. The movie grapples with the impact of that decision but doesn’t arrive at a conclusion about it, to its credit. On the other hand, the movie’s final scene and the judgmental title suggest that some part of the story leads Amy to a place of greater understanding, perhaps at the expense of a self that didn’t need changing.
I wish the movie weren’t so inclined to have its cake and eat its too. But I do like the way it acknowledges other parts of Amy’s life running simultaneous to her romantic endeavors. The story involving her father and his new residence at an elderly care facility ends with a surprising jolt of grief. Amy’s relationship with Kim plays a key role in the character’s emotional journey. Even the homeless man outside Amy’s apartment building seems to shape a portion of what Amy does and how she thinks. If Trainwreck is simply a “traditional” romantic comedy – not that there’s anything wrong with that, by the way – it’s also a comprehensive one, not content to foreground romance at the expense of the rest of Amy’s life.
And yet, it is too much, as well as not quite enough. Much of the setup in the first act doesn’t get a full payoff. No one in the film utters the word “trainwreck,” which makes me suspect that title is primarily a product of market testing. Scenes come and go in a jumble. Trainwreck isn’t a wreck, but it has elements of one. It’s saved to a large extent by the chemistry between Schumer and Hader, Schumer and Larson, Larson and Birbiglia and so forth. It’s a movie that understands relationships and human behavior, but not story structure or pacing. The shagginess is appealing, but only up to a point. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet when you’re looking for a three-course meal.
But Schumer will get more meals, more chances to shine onscreen, as she often does here. There’s enough ambition and skill in a single episode of Inside Amy Schumer to power more movie scripts. Maybe she’ll even direct someday. As a launchpad, Trainwreck rocks. As a movie, it’s a bumpy ride.