Trainwreck is a weird movie. Culturally, we are no longer standing on the threshold of a new era in which comedy, especially raunchy comedy, is the domain of men—but we haven’t finished crossing into that new world on the other side, either. It’s likely we’ve all heard the story about how Amy Poehler took a definitive stance against subliminal sexism in the SNL writers’ room stating that she was there to be funny, not cute; we all know how Bridesmaids was a huge hit that surprised our dudebro friends who thought that women couldn’t be funny or gross, and how that opened the door for fare like Trainwreck (I personally prefer the widely-reviled The Sweetest Thing for its uninhibited provocativeness, but that’s neither here nor there). Comedy Central, formerly the home of media catering exclusively to douches and douches in training, now features transgressive shows like Key & Peele, Another Period, and Broad City, helmed by and starring women and people of color in the timeslots that used to feature Adam Corolla and Jimmy Kimmel mocking little people and ogling women on trampolines. Sure, Daniel Tosh still finds his home there, but he’s old news now, and I’d be surprised if Tosh.0 exists beyond 2017. And, of course, that’s where Amy Schumer’s series airs.
Inside Amy Schumer, recently having completed its third season, is easily one of the most insightful and thoughtful shows on air. A sketch comedy show featuring interstitial footage from Schumer’s stand-up routines, the show has skewered toxic patriarchy and the roles women are forced to play in society, from a sketch in which various successful women in STEM fields participate in a panel in which none of them can stop apologizing, portraying the way women are trained to be “sorry” about everything, to the now viral sketch parodying Friday Night Lights to address the issue of sexual violence against young women, at once targeting both rape culture and the deification of high school athletics culture, and the intersectionality between these two social problems. My personal favorite is the sketch in which Amy’s character attempts to play the military first-person-shooter that her boyfriend is obsessed with; she selects to play as a woman, and said video game avatar is immediately the victim of sexual assault. When given the opportunity to report the assault, the game’s narrator attempts to talk her out of doing so, asking “Did you know he has a family?” The pixelated assailant is convicted at court martial, but his commanding officer disregards the ruling while Amy’s soldier character is relegated to a lifetime of paperwork in retribution. Amy complains to the boyfriend, who runs off to check the message boards; they say nothing about this situation, so he declares she must have played incorrectly somehow. The sketch takes aim at so many things at once, it’s almost hard to keep track: the pervasiveness of sexual assault against women in the American armed forces, the horrible manner in which these women have their careers destroyed for reporting their assaults, the insular toxic “just us boys” attitude that permeates video game culture (the fact that the assault is a de facto result of playing as a woman, coupled the fact that there is no discussion of this gameplay mechanic online, implies that Amy is the first person to actually choose to play as a woman), and the act of “mansplaining.” Given how much of Schumer’s body of work takes aim at the absurdity and darkness of phallocentric culture and mocking that culture’s paradigms, it’s a surprise that Trainwreck follows such a standard romcom formula, albeit one populated by more colorful characters than is the norm.
The film opens with a flashback to the young Amy and her sister, Kim, being given a lecture by their father (Colin Quinn) about how monogamy is an unrealistic expectation, complete with an analogy about only being allowed to play with one doll for the rest of one’s life, especially when you occasionally want to play with a stewardess doll or the best friend of your main doll. As an adult, Amy embraces this philosophy, engaging in a series of one-night sexual encounters with various men with the caveat that she never sleeps over and never becomes emotionally attached. She’s also sleeping consistently with Steve (John Cena), who is completely oblivious to the closet that he’s living in, although this “relationship,” such as it is, comes to an end fairly early in the film’s running time when he discovers that Amy is not sleeping with him exclusively. Amy works for men’s magazine S’Nuff, where her boss, Diana (a perfect-as-always Tilda Swinton), assigns her to work on a story about sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), and implies that Amy is up for an editor position.
The film’s most emotionally and comedically satisfying scenes, however, center around Amy’s relationship with her family. Amy’s father has recently been admitted to assisted living due to deteriorating health. He’s a Mets-obsessed alcoholic with a heart of copper, and Amy has an amicable spiritual kinship with him, despite the fact that her sister resents him for his outdated bigotry and the way that his infidelity broke up their family when she and Amy were kids. Kim (Brie Larson, always a delightful screen presence) is now married to the incredibly dorky Tom (Mike Birbiglia) and has a young stepson (Evan Brinkman) whose fascination with esoteric miscellany Amy finds annoying. Both male characters are odd in a way that the audience can’t help but find endearing and charming despite the fact that Amy finds them, and the culturally normative lifestyle they represent in spite of their individual eccentricities, off-putting. Kim is genuinely happy with her family unit, soon to include a new baby; she also tries to convince Amy that she, too, will one day find fulfillment in embracing the narrative of domesticity. Amy’s having none of that… at first.
The plot outline of the romcom is nothing new, and there haven’t been many tweaks to the idea since the genre crystallized into a single formula as part of the Meg Ryan oeuvre. Woman is in an unfulfilling or boring relationship; this relationship ends, and Woman dedicates herself to the abstract art of self-understanding or focusing on her career; despite her protestations, Woman’s Friend or Friends manage to put her in a situation where she meets Love Interest; Woman falls for Love Interest, but forced drama and farcical misunderstandings push the two apart; finally, one party makes a grand sweeping gesture to demonstrate their love for the other party, they kiss, fin.
Since watching Trainwreck, a movie that I unabashedly enjoyed and found riotously funny, I’ve spent a great deal of time meditating on the ways that Schumer’s script managed to find something novel and original in that formula and exploring those nooks and crannies to mine for comedy gold—at least in the first hour. Like Greg Kinnear in You’ve Got Mail (and Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle, Liev Schrieber in Kate & Leopold, etc.), Cena’s Steve is a disposable love interest. Unlike his genre forbears, however, he does fulfill Amy in the only way she cares about, and he extricates himself from her life not in order for a new love to bloom, but because he can’t feel secure in their relationship (and because he’s totally, totally gay). He also elaborates on Amy’s apparent flaws, and that’s where my confusion about the film’s thesis lies; Amy likes to drink and smoke pot and have noncommittal sex, and anyone familiar with Schumer’s comedy knows that she views these activities as lacking moral or ethical components. Who cares if someone’s taking puffs off of a one-hitter during a pretentious indie movie called The Dogwalker, as long as it’s not hurting anyone? Right? But her inability to communicate with Steve because she is stoned does hurt him. And, at the end of the movie, she gives her liquor and drug paraphernalia away in order to take the next step in her life and commit to her love for Aaron, implying that being a pothead really was a character flaw, and not just a characteristic.
I’m not really sure what to make of this. For the last hour of the film, I kept expecting some twist to occur that would further subvert the tropes of the genre the way that the first hour had–maybe Aaron and Amy don’t end up together, or some other variation from the romcom norm. Instead, after Amy meets Aaron and falls into a relationship with him in spite of her misgivings about a heteronormative monogamous lifestyle, the formula plays out fairly standardly. There is something new about the way that the friction between the breeding couple comes not from lies (Amy makes no apologies for or attempts to hide her party-hard lifestyle) or misunderstandings, but from slowly building unspoken resentment of Amy’s choices on Aaron’s part and Amy’s struggles with grief over her father’s death, but this alone isn’t enough to mitigate the predictability of that final scene where Woman and Love Interest declare their love for each other. There’s just something about it that doesn’t feel like it was created by the same Amy Schumer who spent an entire episode of her show appropriating the structure of 12 Angry Men to satirize the way American men are socialized to treat women as sex objects, regardless of the lack of an inherent connection between talent and conformity to a particular beauty ideal.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a funny movie, probably the funniest I’ve seen in theaters in years. The comedy is sometimes broad, sometimes particular, always insightful, and biting; the relationships between Amy and her father and Amy and Kim are emotionally resonant in ways that are superior to most dramas. I just can’t help feeling a little let down because the movie wasn’t as iconoclastic or transgressive as I wanted it to be. It’s not an “anti-romcom,” it’s a romcom that’s smarter, funnier, and more inventive than its predecessors–but it’s a romcom nonetheless. That’s not a negation of the film’s inventiveness, but it is an accurate assessment. Regardless, it’s a delightful movie, and not to be missed.
–Mark “Boomer” Redmond