July 26, 2015


Redemption is the theme embedded within Judd Apatow’s latest comedy, Trainwreck, which was written by its star, Amy Schumer. Schumer’s character, also named Amy, doesn’t believe in committed relationships. She doesn’t care if her men sleep with other girls. She’s not longing for the one great romance that will result in marriage and children and settling down. Amy has a job for a popular men’s magazine called Snuff (run by a real monster, played to absolute perfection by Tilda Swinton); she has her own apartment in the city; she has friends, and a happily dysfunctional relationship with her ailing father (Colin Quinn) and younger sister (Brie Larson), both of which run on a kind of cynical humor which occasionally boils over into genuine meanness (mostly on Amy’s part). And so, we know from the beginning that Amy is going to need to be saved from herself and from her reckless living. It’s really astonishing how Victorian it all is. Amy is almost a Becky Sharp (Thackeray’s deliciously odious heroine in Vanity Fair), taking down the society around her, except, unlike Sharp, Amy ultimately trades in her social anarchy for conformity.

And here is where I want to parse out something. I found Amy (the character) totally irritating. She was genuinely mean to every guy in her life, even the nice one, the nerdy-but-lovable-orthopedic-surgeon-to-the-stars played by Bill Hader. I wanted him to dump her and let her stew in her own misery. This has nothing to do with Amy’s lifestyle and everything to do with the fact that she is a generally unlikable person with whom we the audience are expected to sympathize. (Again, I mean the character of Amy, not the actress Amy Schumer.) Unlike one of those great Victorian heroines, thumbing her nose at the arbitrary and stodgy conventions of society, Amy aims her middle finger squarely at anyone and everyone who tries to love her. 

Of course, you will say, that’s the whole point. She can’t accept love because she doesn’t love herself. She resorts to snarky criticism of others’ work and choices in order to deflect her own fear of failure. Amy diagnoses these maladies herself, somewhere in the course of the more-than-two-hour-long saga. But I don’t care. It doesn’t make this Ebenezer Scrooge change-of-heart story any less harder to take. In fact, I think Bill Hader would have fared better with Scrooge. 

The movie might have succeeded in its redemption story if it weren’t for the fact that everything about Amy Schumer’s comedy—both in and out of this film—works toward a kind of critique of such things as stock romantic comedies where women are dominated by men and churned through the domesticity factory. Amy doesn’t exactly end up a Stepford wife by the finale of Trainwreck, but she does embrace a kinder, gentler version of herself, one who’s also willing to perform a sexy cheerleader dance with the help of the Knicks City Dancers. What’s so strange about this movie is that Bill Hader’s character is such a good guy that he’s the kind of man you’d want your daughter/sister/ friend to end up with. You want her to stop being such a monster to him. But somehow, her "redemption" is never really that. It's more of a self-policing job. And Hader's character becomes her punching bag, so often that we start to lose respect for him to a degree. 

The monster-heroine plot would probably have been fine on its own, perhaps even as low-camp (especially if this had been about the Tilda Swinton character, whom I absolutely loved), but forcing Amy Schumer’s politically charged humor to conform to the conventions of the romantic comedy works against everything that’s funny in the movie. (And there are a lot of funny moments; I would be lying if I told you otherwise.) Trainwreck ultimately re-affirms everything that every other romantic comedy espouses—the acquiring of spouses. And any smart critique of say, the arbitrary conventions of society, falls apart.

What’s really astonishing is the fact that movies today are surprisingly more conservative and conventional than they’ve ever been, especially in the romantic comedy genre. This month, I watched a terrific Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, Ball of Fire (1941), directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Gary Cooper, in which Stanwyck moves in with a bunch of bachelor-professors to escape the police and her crimelord boyfriend, quickly and deliberately wooing Cooper out of his academic impotence. Stanwyck, who specialized in playing untamably reckless women, always gets her men to loosen up, and she never has to undergo the kind of moral purification to which Amy is subjected. And what’s more, nobody makes a big thing of it. It’s just entertaining and clever. Stanwyck’s arts were perhaps never put to better use than in the 1941 Preston Sturges screwball comedy The Lady Eve, in which she plays a card shark who cons and then falls for a clueless millionaire snake-handler played by Henry Fonda. Again, she's a "bad" woman right to the end, and there's no sign that she'll become "good" post-nuptials. It seems that, 75 years later, our movies have actually regressed. Amy Schumer is very funny and very talented, and I admire her humor-laced-with-politics. But I wish she and others would take some cues from the Barbara Stanwycks of Old Hollywood, women whose work was always subversive and funny and sexy and complex. 

With LeBron James (who’s very likable, playing himself), John Cena, Jon Glaser, Vanessa Bayer, and Ezra Miller.

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