It would be far too easy to pan Trainwreck by claiming that the film lives up to its title, in the same way many of the film’s raves have run the opposite, and equally lame and easy rhetorical gambit (as in “Trainwreck is anything but.” Good night, Philadelphia). It is a very disappointing failure, however, and a spectacular loss of nerve on the part of Amy Schumer (although not so much for Mr. Apatow). If you admire the Amy Schumer who courts discomfort in the service of exploring the ambivalences of the modern female subject position, the Amy we are all familiar with from her Comedy Central show and her stand-up routines, prepare yourself. Trainwreck does feature a facsimile of that Amy Schumer, but it does so, sadly, only to destroy and bury her under the twisted, piled-up wreckage of the contemporary romantic comedy. (Okay, I went there). The film betrays its audience not simply by being conventional, but by being downright conservative, in the sense that it proposes a set of problems that it is only interested in resolving with fake-outs and lies. Trainwreck is a selling out of Ms. Schumer’s previous worldview, and talents, on a spectacular level. I am not the biggest Amy Schumer fan by any means, so please don’t mistake my upset as a disappointment with a personal dimension. Or even a political one. It is the disappointment of someone who would like to laugh at a comedy. It is the disappointment of someone who would like to see a narrative unfold that takes itself seriously. Yes, the film provides more comedy than something like Spy, and yes, there is some truth to the proceedings, and to the portrayal of this self-proclaimed “broken” woman. So the stakes are higher, as at least this viewer expects a comedy about an unhappy, alcoholic prisoner of fear to be honest, and hopefully acidly funny as well – because otherwise, why bother? Instead, we are subjected to non-stop cynicism and subsequent cleansing bromides passed off as truth. By avoiding honestly exploring and resolving, if not solving, the problems raised, the film reveals itself as deeply disparaging of reality. By flinching, Ms. Schumer makes a joke not just of herself, but of the real people who suffer as her character does, in a similarly relentless and cynical reality, and have not the magical ability to write their own happy ending.
The Amy of our film is a combination of the brutally honest and self-deprecating Amy we know from stand-up, combined with the satirical and mocking “Amy” of her Comedy Central show, who is often used as a device to reveal the stupidity, sexism, and embedded misogyny of our culture. She is a hard drinking career woman who works for a men’s magazine called S’Nuff (a parody of FHM and its brethren) and spends her free time having meaningless sex with as many men as she can. We know, or come to understand, that behind this facade lies a deeply unhappy sad sack with low self-esteem and no expectations, who hides her true reality behind her outrageous “humor.” Where do the problems come from? From a broken home, and from Dad (Colin Quinn, doing a horrible job of playing 70), who we see at the beginning of the movie lecturing his daughters on the foolishness of monogamy by way of breaking the news of divorce. Amy’s younger sister Kim (Brie Larson) somehow escapes the nightmare, growing up to live a conventional life as a seemingly contented and loving housewife and step-mother (a relationship that Amy openly mocks). When she’s not having one-night stands, Amy is dating Steven (John Cena), a lovable and loyal, if somewhat dim jock who, upon realizing Amy’s polyamorous ways, breaks it off, calls her mean, and exits for good, obviously hurt. This breakup does apparently give Amy some pause, and so when she is assigned an interview with prominent sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader) by her Kim Gordon-meets-a-pumpkin editor/boss (Tilda Swinton, the film’s finest hour), she is primed to find within him a possible long-term partner, even if she at first treats him like one of her one and dones. The rest of the narrative is comprised of a battle between the better angels of Amy’s nature (her sister, her intended, LeBron James) and the worse ones (herself, her Dad, her boss) as she vacillates between trying to shoehorn Aaron into the category of “not meant to be” and believing that indeed she does want to stop identifying as a whore, find Mr. Right, and hopefully a happy ending, after all. When she proves too much for even God’s gift to self-actualization to handle, she breaks. After quickly dumping the booze and drugs, tidying up her apartment so it resembles a Hallmark movie bedroom Della Reese would not be ashamed to inhabit, she rushes to Madison Square Garden (although there is no crisis, and hence no tension to the climax) and regales Aaron in a cheerleader outfit, dancing along with those other “community builders” her previously self-hating small mind had rejected as sexist mascots of male fantasy. The film ends with our couple in full missionary under the backboard, Amy apparently cured of her self-hatred, alcoholism, and funnybone by her loving man.
Based on that synopsis, I guess it probably seems like there is not much cause for alarm, or consternation, as what we have is simply an unambitious romantic comedy that happens to star Amy Schumer. The problem is less in the grand scheme than in the details, however. Much of the proceedings come off as Schumer wanting to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to have an edge, but also be nice. She wants to explore the psychological reality of her self-destructive character, while also keeping things Golightly light and leaving room for wish fulfillment. So we get plenty of awkward turns, such as playing Kim’s family for laughs as a bunch of lumpy, un-hip, unattractive fools, who dare to be nice and have feelings for each other, then later in the film making us feel guilty for laughing at them earlier (which we didn’t anyway) as it is really Amy who is the fool for being afraid of the conventional and for judging others. Likewise, we are supposed to laugh at the stupid homophobic stories promulgated by S’Nuff (as, duh, this is satire), while finding Kim’s coffee klatch friends’ mild homophobia worthy of eye-rolling and condescension (as we are now taking a moment to impart a serious message). As the film swings back and forth between purported edginess and dullness, or self-hatred and therapy, or comedy and drama, or reality and fantasy (pick your dialectic), we begin to feel the laughs are on us, either for finding the offensive funny, or for taking the real stuff seriously, and we begin to understand that a resolution will not come through synthesis or catharsis, but will be bestowed by authorial fiat. And this is where the real problem lies. Amy Schumer wants her comedy to mean something, to tell some sort of truth – and that is fine. But truth often hurts, and real problems cannot be solved by recourse to 30 seconds of resolve followed by becoming exactly what you spent the previous half-hour mocking. Think about the potential of this comedy if it allowed itself to be truly black, and tackled such a self-destructive character with honesty; it might actually say something about our society, and about the forces that construct such pain and misery, forces which undermine people in real ways. Schumer has not the nerve for reality, though, and for me this is the most unforgivable sin. For a while, in the third quarter of the movie, there exists an uneasy tension, as Schumer’s drinking is no longer funny, or relateable, but indeed “real” in that it is a problem, and ugly. We begin to sense someone might suggest she is an alcoholic, or that one of the other characters might have a real talk with her about why she drinks (and smokes pot) to such an extent. When was the last time you saw the issue of how alcohol functions in our society portrayed in such a personal, realistic way on the big screen (comedy or not)? So it was very disheartening to see her behaviors (perhaps not quite addictions) dealt with in less than a minute. She simply takes the booze, and the drugs, and boxes them up, giving them to some more deserving soul (the homeless man who lives outside her building, ha ha). She lights a Glade candle, contemplates her new resolve, and then bounds off to the arena, to suit up and impress her man. It is not that she seeks to be conventional that offends, as the movie does not err in proposing that being conventional is the way to be “happy.” But what is such happiness? It is herein pitched purely as winning the battle with internal demons, plague of the weak-willed, which pull us out of conventional ways because we are too afraid to fail, or be rejected, rather than as also being a social phenomena that provides a safe role to play while allowing us to be this way or that for the benefit of others (that is, the film refuses to see convention as also a mechanism of external control). And along the way, the ending sells out the reality that informs Amy’s character – it sells out all of us who cannot muster such easy solutions, and willpower, and for whom Mr. Right is not the answer (because perhaps he never appears, or does not exist). It sells out those who truly struggle with alcohol, and drugs, and by way of succor gives a completely disingenuous (never mind, for many, equally unappealing) “solution.” “Find a true love. Build community. Love yourself. And do it dressed as a cheerleader!” Does no one else find this crass? Pathetic to the point of tears?
P.S. The half star is for Tilda Swinton, who is indeed amazing, and for an unexpected appearance by Norman Lloyd – yes, Norman Lloyd, who worked with Welles, and Hitchcock, and Ed Begley Jr. At 100, I’d expect this, sadly, to be his final film, but I hope he proves me wrong.