2015 • 124 minutes • Universal Pictures
Amy Schumer doesn’t punch hard enough for me.
Let me be very clear: on the basis of what I have seen of Schumer’s work, she does not punch hard enough for my taste. Unlike that Washington Post article, I am not going to pretend to judge Schumer’s comedy on the basis of her entire oeuvre when I haven’t seen most of it. But from what I have seen—“Last Fuckable Day,” “Celebrity Interview,” “Football Town Nights,” and Trainwreck—Schumer seems great at setting up scenarios where she can highlight problematic elements. For instance, in “Football Town Nights,” when a new football coach asks his players to stop raping, we are treated to the black comedy of teenage boys offering up scenario after scenario where rape is acceptable. (“What if my mom is the DA and she won’t persecute?”) But the conclusion, where the coach saves the game by describing football as raping the other team, is disappointing, because it just plays into rape culture. I think we are meant to read that conclusion as more black comedy (look, it’s embedded in the entire system of this game!), but it feels too subtle to conclusively make that point. Obviously, no creator owes it to an audience to be unsubtle, but it sits oddly with me. “Celebrity Interview” does the same; it feels like it’s mocking celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence instead of mocking the system that capitalizes on presenting women with non-traditional interests (but, of course, very traditional beauty) as rare and exotic.
Trainwreck, Schumer’s film debut as both a lead actress and as a screenwriter, falls into much the same category for me. Schumer gets a lot of comedic and dramatic mileage by genderswapping a common romantic comedy male archetype—Amy Townsend works hard, parties hard, and has no time for commitment. The film’s second scene, wherein Amy successfully gets her date to go down on her before she “falls asleep” so she doesn’t have to reciprocate, is a grand thesis statement for the film. But, like Amy in that scene, the film doesn’t go much farther than that.
One of the main points of the film is that Amy is a terrible person, especially in the way that she treats men. The scene where a very high Amy finally tells Steven, her impossibly fit but seeming dull not-boyfriend, that she sees other men is very well-executed. As Steven tells her that his dream was to trademark a CrossFit program, move to the suburbs, and have kids with her as his “CrossFit queen”, Amy is forced to confront the fact that Steven is a whole human being that she has hurt through her actions. Having literally never seen the staff counterpart to this scene, I was blown away by how it comments on how we’re often invited to dehumanize romantic interests.
But we don’t see similar scenes with other people Amy treats abominably. Amy constantly insults her stepnephew Alistair for being insufficiently masculine and treats the Knicks City dancers with sarcastic scorn for being… uh… enthusiastic? (“You’re going to rob us of the right to vote!” Amy cheerfully yells at the only women of color in the film.) There are scenes with some resolution: Alistair shows Amy his Minecraft sketches and they bond, and the climax shows that Amy appreciates what the Knicks City dancers can do. But both scenes feel weaker than the interaction they’re resolving; it feels like an afterthought after deciding to derive comedic value out of an non-traditional little boy and the only female athletes in the film.
I wonder if this might not be due to how improv heavy Trainwreck seems. As Tony Zhou has pointed out in “Every Frame a Painting,” modern American comedies tend to be very, very verbal, often to the point of ignoring other comedic venues, like sight gags, editing, or sound effects. There are a lot of lines and takes present in the trailers that aren’t in the films. The greatest visual gag in the movie is probably Amy seeing herself on the wrong side of Manhattan. I have every confidence that all of these emotional beats are present in the shooting script, but sarcastic insults offer more room for actors and writers to riff in the moment than heartfelt moments.
Still, while I have macro problems with the film, the micro is expertly observed. When Amy attends a charity dinner with Bill Hader’s Aaron, she realizes that her dress is showing more cleavage than the room is comfortable with, and the brief moment she takes to try and adjust something that will not be covered up is perfect. When Amy accuses Aaron’s parents’ marriage of being a lie, Bill Hader executes the briefest moment of hesitance with an eye wobble. And Amy’s family situation is respectfully but clearly dealt with. Colin Quinn is ferociously on point as Amy’s father, a very sick man that Amy always loves (because they’re so alike) and sometimes hates. It would very easy, I think, to turn that character into a caricature, and Quinn handles it so gracefully. Brie Larson, too, is wonderful as Amy’s sister. What I really love about her performance is her ability to capture both how much she enjoys Amy’s company but how complex their relationship can be, especially when it comes to how their father treated their mother.
And rest assured that this is not a film where Amy’s amazing life is presented as lonely and broken until she meets Aaron. Rather, Amy’s lifestyle is no longer one that fulfills her or she can even sustain, and dating Aaron is just part of a very strange time in her life where everything falls apart: her family, her career, and her coping mechanisms. You do get the sense that Amy is cleaning up her life for the better, and not just to be with Aaron. It helps that Aaron is presented as a whole human being, capable of making bad decisions and, when Amy’s issues surface, bolting at the first sign of trouble. What Aaron represents to Amy is not so much a Prince Charming, but somebody she is willing to put in the work for.
Trainwreck is an important film, I think, but it doesn’t dismantle the romantic comedy as ferociously as you might think, which seems part and parcel of Schumer’s comedy (based on my small sample size).
I saw this film in theaters.