It always feels a little strange to be watching a new release that has already received a huge amount of coverage online, particularly when you end up disagreeing with some of that discourse, as is the case for me here. Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck – a mildly-raunchy rom-com written by and starring Amy Schumer – has received many positive reviews and has performed very well at the US box office, to some extent making a mockery of the popular suggestion that audiences in 2015 have lost their appetite for such fayre. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with the general consensus that Schumer is one of the funniest (and most exciting) Americans working in mainstream entertainment at the moment, because I’ve found the various seasons of Inside Amy Schumer to date consistently funny and she is on sparkling form here, but there have been a million and one articles celebrating her talent in the past three or four months and I can’t summon up the energy to make it a million and two. Yet I do wonder why there has been such clambering to laud Trainwreck as some kind of modern-day comic masterpiece; there seems to me to be half a funny film here, and that’s very firmly the first hour, in which Schumer’s character Amy Townsend sleeps around, goes to work on a men’s magazine, wearily dismisses nearly everyone in her life and then meets Bill Hader’s affable doctor Aaron Connors. She is edgy, and clever, and interesting, and witty, and basically encompasses everything you want from the lead character in a comedy.
Of course it’s still rare for a rom-com to lean so heavily on a female protagonist, especially one with a few rough edges who has casual sex, takes drugs and describes the state of their tampon by comparing it to a Tarantino film. It’s rarer still to see a woman like this (or any woman) front-and-centre within a Judd Apatow film, whether we’re talking about the few he has directed or the many that he’s either written or produced (there have been a handful of prominent female characters within his filmography, yes, but always playing second fiddle to your Seth Rogens, Jason Segels and Paul Rudds). And obviously this has happened because it is the first time Apatow has directed a film written by someone else – ye gods, a woman, no less! – even if Amy’s character and story arc resemble those of previous male Apatow creations (Knocked Up‘s Ben Stone springs immediately to mind). So yeah, following decades of male-dominated and male-focused mainstream comedy it’s certainly easy to see why Trainwreck is being celebrated for its part in a general, healthy female-centric resurgence within the genre, the latest in a long list of critical and financial success stories that have gone some way to redressing the earlier imbalance (see also Bridesmaids, Pitch Perfect, Spy, 30 Rock, Parks And Recreation, The Heat, Girls, and so on and so on).
The success here comes from the sharpness of Schumer’s blackly-comic writing, her laconic delivery and excellent timing, as well as a few well-observed supporting turns. I thoroughly enjoyed watching single-ish Amy negotiate her amusing relationship with John Cena’s muscular lover Steven (their scenes together are the funniest in the film) and her work meetings, featuring Tilda Swinton’s larger-than-life editor Dianna and Ezra Miller’s childlike intern. I also enjoyed her awkwardness around Dr. Connors when they first meet, the stiff air between the two punctured by a few sharp asides, while Amy’s complete lack of respect for Tom (Mike Birbiglia) and Allister (Evan Brinkman), the husband and stepson of her sister Kim (Brie Larson), also provides a few laughs. Yet sadly these peter out when Trainwreck gets sucked into a kind of convention vortex, one that seems to affect more films within this genre than any other. Somewhat predictably the relationship at the centre of the story goes through a few ups-and-downs, the couple split and then get back together by the end. It really sags during this period, even stooping so low as to include a montage in which Amy and Aaron stare glumly into the middle distance while sitting alone at different cafes. This is the period when the film should be going intro overdrive, and this is the period in which most people will want to see Amy become the trainwreck suggested by the title. It never happens, sadly, and instead there’s an unnecessary reliance on supporting characters who, after 90 minutes, have started to lose a little of their appeal (though on balance I liked LeBron James’ performance, even if I’m sure it’s even funnier if you know a lot about LeBron James’ public persona, or how he is perceived by the general public, rather than a little).
I also dislike the way Trainwreck compensates for some of Amy’s actions. In 2015, just because someone smokes a little weed and sleeps with strangers, we really don’t need to subsequently see them caring for their ill father or being kind to homeless people, as if some great moral wrong or imbalance needs to be made right. Such conservatism within an otherwise-risqué film! That’s one of the concessions to Big Audiences that the film could have done without, and another is the constant shoe-horning in of celebrity cameos, many of which should have been left on the cutting room floor (the scenes involving Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, Matthew Broderick, Chris Evert and Marv Albert are as flat as a pancake). And then there’s the cameos of sportsmen (three, I think, but not being a connoisseur of American sports there could well be more), which could arguably be an attempt to make men feel comfortable about watching a female-fronted film. I can’t speak for everyone but if I had not been reminded that professional competition and testosterone exist I think I’d have survived the two-hour experience. The weak, standard rom-com stuff and the cameos sadly diminish the impact of the first hour, which is as funny as anything I’ve seen in 2015 (even if that is, sadly, a seven-out-of-ten kind of level). Trainwreck is 20 or 30 minutes too long, and despite its many attempts to shock it feels like a film that has been watered down and made safe for the multiplexes. That opening sixty minutes, however, is worth the price of admission. Cena, James, Swinton and Hader are fun, while Schumer has presence, charm and more than a little acidity to ensures that she stands out from the pack.
Directed by: Judd Apatow.
Written by: Amy Schumer.
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Mike Birbiglia.
Cinematography: Jody Lee Lipes.
Editing: Paul Zucker.
Music: Jon Brion, Various.
Running Time: 124 minutes.