by Tess Adair
Four out of Five Stars
I had high expectations for Trainwreck. Like everyone else with a Facebook page, I have been subjected to the near daily deluge of links to Amy Schumer “eviscerating/skewering/destroying” sexism. And I’ve loved every second of it.
Do I buy the implication that a single smart sketch will fundamentally change the status quo for the better? Of course not. But Amy Schumer is hilarious, and she has her finger right on the life-blood pulse of popular culture.
And holy crap does Amy Schumer get my demographic. I count myself among the urban, single women in their 20s and 30s trying to figure out how to forge fulfilling and well-(enough)-paying careers out of nothing, how to form relationships (both romantic and platonic) that meet our needs and don’t leave us feeling like we got the shit-end of someone else’s bargain, how to figure out if we even want kids and how we want to have them, and how to navigate a world full of sexist/racist/classist stumbling blocks without exhausting ourselves before we hit our peak.
Amy Schumer gets it all. Sometimes watching her is a little like watching my own thoughts filtered back to me through a lens of hilarity I could never achieve. It can feel almost transformative.
So maybe that’s what I was expecting when I went to see the movie. Transformation. Power. I wanted Amy Schumer to take the tired old shtick of romantic comedy clichés and give me something back that turned them all on their head.
Did she do that? Yes. But...not quite as much as I wanted her to.
The traditional romantic comedy plot, much like the traditional musical plot, tends to give you a hero and heroine who are, in some way, at odds with each other. The formula has changed up a bit more recently, but often our leads comprise a (white, straight) man who is too career-obsessed/type-A/anti-kids/pro-vagina-hunting to settle down and wife up, and a (white, straight) woman who is so artistic/zany/childlike/down-to-earth/full-of-life that she ends up showing him the error of his ways and seducing him into a nuclear family (or, if she’s Annie Hall, realizing that he’s never seen her as a person so much as an extension of himself, and dumping his ass.) This tradition is why the term “manic pixie dream girl” has entered our collective cultural vocabulary, though the type existed long before we had a term for it. (If you’re curious, go watch Meet Me in St. Louis.)
Trainwreck director Judd Apatow already has a history of playing with this typology a bit, though the argument could be made that he’s simply upgraded gender-based tropes to comply with the times.* At the very least, no one has ever accused him of writing the manic pixie.
Like I’d hoped it would, Trainwreck flips the script on our gendered expectations for our (still white and straight) leads. Schumer’s character, aptly named Amy, is fundamentally opposed to settling down, preferring to binge-drink-and-smoke her way through endless one-off encounters, while Bill Hader’s Aaron is looking for a more permanent romance, despite an apparent lack of success in his romantic life so far. In a nice touch, Schumer’s narration points out the couple’s white-heteronormativity as a way of mocking both the schmaltzy montage of their love and Amy’s character, who clearly enjoys a certain amount of out-of-touch privilege.
The performances in this movie are spot-on. Schumer and Hader deliver an admirable mix of pathos and humor, and their chemistry and interplay give you more than enough reason to root for them as a couple; Hader is especially good at the disbelieving stare and sleep-deprived confusion, while Schumer makes a good drunk and an even better hang-over sufferer.
Lebron James and Tilda Swinton supply the clearest standout supporting performances, as well as the highest number of laughs outside the leads. James plays a version of himself who won’t pick up a check or order a second pair of $30 sunglasses, loves Downton Abbey and doesn’t understand why Aaron visited him in Miami all the time but hasn’t once come down to Cleveland. Swinton manages yet another complete physical transformation for this role, this time using merely the power of a perfectly manicured business-woman haircut and a massive amount of blue eye-shadow. She acts as something of an insane one-liner machine as Amy’s cruel but hilarious, outrageously out-of-touch boss at the terrible magazine Amy writes for.
The magazine itself, called S’Nuff, provides much of the movie’s commentary on contemporary culture. S’Nuff offers up article gems such as “You’re Not Gay, She’s Just Boring,” and “Ugliest Celebrity Children Under Six,” while the editorial staff receives assignments based not on merit or idea-generation, but on how un-threatening they might be to an interviewee’s ego, or how much they might hate the topic they have to cover (which is how Amy ends up covering sports doctor Aaron despite hating sports.)
In the first short scene at Amy’s workplace, Schumer supplies us both with a toxic work culture that encourages a cynical callousness in its employees while crushing their spirits and sense of self-worth, and a popular culture that plays an incessant drum beat of humanity’s basest impulses, from making a shallow sport out of sexual objectification to a cold-blooded disregard for the privacy of children for the sake of cheap entertainment.
Tellingly, Amy’s character both does and does not buy into the culture at her magazine. When Aaron says he’s read her work, she rushes to tell him that she’s written better things at other places, but, as she says, she must generate the content her employer wants to sell. But while she seems well aware that the magazine publishes lowbrow content, she remains unaware of the connection between the magazine’s content and its internal culture, and equally unaware of how much her life has been affected by that culture and its demands.
Yes, Amy drinks too much and smokes too much, and yes, Amy likes to fuck around. (I can relate more than a little bit.) But are any of those things really her problem? No. Thankfully, the film never slut-shames her and neither do any of the characters in it. If anything, her propensity to sleep around takes a backseat to her substance abuse, as well it should. But the substance abuse itself isn’t really the issue either--it’s when and where she does it. When the guy she’s “sort of seeing,” Steven, (humorously played by John Cena) confronts her about hooking up with other people, she tries to back out of the conversation with him by claiming that she’s too high to have it. Later on, she gives Aaron the exact same line when he tries to talk about her walking out in the middle of his big speech.
Amy’s substance abuse is little more than avoidance, one more way of canceling any responsibility for her own life. When Steven confronts her, he does so by spewing his absurdly self-centered view of what their life together might be--telling her that he wants her to provide him with enough sons for a basketball team, and he wants to reign over them, “with you by my side.” It’s a line often viewed by movie-goers as romantic, but here it serves to underline the fact that he ultimately wants her to play backup to his lead. On the heels of their earlier sex-scene, where her attempts to spice up their boring encounter merely resulted in an early finish for him, replete with his loud insistence that she remain perfectly still while he did so, it’s not hard to see why his offer might be less appetizing than gag-inducing. In fact, the only question their relationship seems to offer is--if Amy is so obsessed with sex, why is she “sort of seeing” someone who seems incapable of supplying her with a satisfactory romp?
For the same reason, of course, that she can’t be bothered to explain to the oblivious muscle man why his ludicrous vision of their future would never work for her: because she is barely aware of it herself. She does not want to want. She does not want to hope for things she might not achieve. She does not want to fail.
The movie, like the trailer, begins with a flashback. Her parents are getting divorced, and her father is trying to explain it to young Amy and her little sister. To the audience, it quickly becomes clear that her father might be a little bit of a dirtbag: he cheated on their mother, and based on his own analogy, he may have cheated on her with her own best friend. But instead of admit any fault to his children, he decides to instill in them the idea that monogamy itself is at fault, not him. “Monogamy isn’t realistic,” he tells them. In other words, he didn’t fail because he let his selfish desires outweigh his responsibilities to other people; he failed because failure was inevitable.
What a thing to teach your children.
The movie succeeds in showing that Amy’s true problem is avoidance and a failure to communicate. It never shames her for being unsure about kids, and it makes a point to show the eye-rollingly obnoxious parts of becoming a parent: namely, dealing with other parents. The most cloying, annoying characters in the movie can all be found in the baby shower scene. To me, the funniest moment of the movie comes when Amy observes her sister’s interaction with her absurdly precocious step-son (who prefers French restaurants to pizza, thus securing his place as Worst Kid Ever.) The kid comes up to her and, eyes round and shining, asks, “Mother, if I kiss your belly really hard, will the baby feel it?” Amy looks like she might throw up all over both of them, but enraptured sister Kim replies, “Why don’t you try it?” He does so, and Kim rewards him with, “I think she did feel it!” And the happy kid runs off.
Amy? Lets out a pronounced and disgusted, “Noo!” She has no interest in the cheesy cuteness of the kid, and no interest in the bland triteness of the baby-shower-world she has briefly entered.
That scene, echoing and subverting so many like it, serves to set up the audience’s heteronormative expectation: Aaron will eventually leave Amy because she’s too much of a fuck-up, doesn’t buy into suburban banality enough, and she’s fucked too many dudes. Basically, she fails on every single “good wife” scorecard marker.
So we expect their final confrontation to center on that. The audience expects it, and Amy also expects it. But it doesn’t. Thank god.
What does it center on? Amy’s avoidance issues, of course. The real problem.
As mentioned above, Amy walks out in the middle of Aaron’s important speech (after dressing inappropriately for the event [to be fair, a girl usually needs more than an hour’s heads-up to come up with a gown] and guzzling wine as soon as she sits down) and he is understandably angry and hurt. Of course, the key thing to note here is that Amy actually has the only legitimate excuse in the book: her boss literally texted her that she would be fired if she didn’t pick up the next call.
Unfortunately but inevitably for Amy, after unwillingly taking the abusive call from her cruel boss, she decides to dip into her on-hand stash of weed to deal with it. So when Aaron comes to confront her, she’s already high, and she gets defensive instead of explaining herself.
During the course of their ensuing argument, all of Amy’s fears and insecurities play themselves out. She makes him stay up too late even though he has surgery the next day, and when he tries to talk about how deeply that may have affected his career, she assumes he is summarily dumping her and shuts down. At that point, she has also learned that her article about him has been cut from the magazine, a fairly deep blow considering that this may have been the first work she did for them that she felt genuinely proud of. But instead of talking to him about the pain of that, she twists it into a barb against him, informing him it was cut because of how boring he is (which is, of course, her boss’s actual reasoning.)
Of course, in true romantic comedy form, Amy does learn the lesson that the film wants her to learn. She needs to admit that she wants things, and she needs to try at them, even though she might fail. It’s an important lesson, and well-taught.
I suppose my primary disappointment with the film is that, in the end, it is still a romantic comedy. The lesson is filtered through the lens of her romantic relationship and catered to that end, as opposed to remaining simply a story of personal growth. By the end, it remains unclear if Amy has figured out how toxic her work environment was, and how important that toxicity figures in the rest of her life. She never quits the job; instead, she gets fired. We see a montage of her cleaning out the (hilariously numerous) bottles of alcohol in her apartment, a little bit of typing, and then a march into Vanity Fair, which later publishes her article. Perhaps we are to take from this that Vanity Fair hosts a superior office culture or at least publishes superior content. Perhaps not. At this point, the movie prefers to dive back into a romantic comedy ending instead of a deeper questioning of culture.
Maybe that was all it could do. Like I said, I had high expectations for the film, and perhaps they were inhumanly high. The film already rounds out 2 full hours. Could it really have included a deep look at what might be wrong with the picture when we accept and even expect our jobs to interrupt and derail some of our most important personal moments? Could it really have examined the connection between a commodified office culture and commodified popular culture?
Maybe not. Or maybe I just have to wait for Schumer’s next movie.
*Remember Knocked Up? Seth Rogan’s male lead is more bong-obsessed than career-obsessed, while Katherine Heigl’s female lead (as well as her married sister) is about as type-A as you can get. But in this case, their roles still function the same: Heigl is prepared for kids, but Rogan needs to be whipped into shape. If anything, this shift in characterization may only represent a cultural shift in how we view parenthood: no longer seen as childlike women’s work, it’s instead viewed as a serious and, more importantly, shared responsibility. I would call that a positive shift in tropes, even if it does evoke the now-standard sexist idea that women are more responsible and grown-up than men, and therefore have a responsibility, essentially, to “raise” their partner until he reaches their level. Baby steps, baby steps.