Film Review: Trainwreck

cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, LeBron James, Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn, Vanessa Bayer, John Cena

screenplay: Amy Schumer

director: Judd Apatow

MPAA: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use

Let me start by saying what Trainwreck is:

  • A formulaic studio rom-com enlivened by the raunchy feminist spirit of its writer and star, Amy Schumer, who’s rightfully enjoying the most rapturous public reception any comedian has enjoyed since Tina Fey played Sarah Palin just as 30 Rock was hitting its stride and we all fell in love.
  • An excuse to bring together the most wonderfully what-the-fuck? ensemble cast this side of Sharknado, achieving a precarious, never-before-attempted balance of acclaimed indie actors, comedy gods, and entirely too many athletes.
  • Very much a Judd Apatow movie, which means the first half is sheer gag-a-second, laughing-over-the-dialogue joy—but then it takes a sharp turn into the dramatic and contemplative halfway through and never looks back, mustering only the occasional chuckle for its second half.
  • A showcase for Schumer’s versatility as an actor. She’s said in countless profiles that acting has always been her first love, so it’s not surprising that she wrote so much juicy material for herself in this flagship outing, to the point where her character cries in nearly every scene for much of the second hour.
  • The shocking revelation that John Cena has been a stealth comedic genius this whole time! In just two big scenes he walks off with the movie’s most memorable laughs, which is no easy feat. I don’t know if he’ll reach Dwayne Johnson levels of wrestler-turned-movie star success, but he pulls off some truly gonzo material here without resorting to the perma-wink Johnson wears at all times.
  • A shocking testament to the mythically chameleonic prowess of Tilda Swinton, who’s been styled to resemble Zanna Roberts Rassi in the unlikely role of Schumer’s demanding magazine editor. I’ve had a surprising number of conversations with decently movie-savvy people who watched the entire movie without realizing it was her. She is sensational.
  • A bonus reunion of the two leads from Lynne Ramsay’s ultra-disturbing school shooting drama, We Need to Talk About Kevin: Swinton and Ezra Miller, who played her son there and a dandy intern at her magazine here. It’s impossible to have watched that movie and not feel bone-deep discomfort seeing them reunited in any context.

Here’s what Trainwreck is not:

  • A story about a trainwreck. Schumer’s character, also named Amy, is pretty much a standard-issue single city girl in her early thirties. She drinks a little more than she should, she sometimes gets too high to have serious conversations, and she sleeps around because she was raised to believe “monogamy isn’t realistic” (and also because she enjoys sex and isn’t in a committed relationship). She does have a rock-bottom moment, but her main offense there is something her character couldn’t have known anyway. Frankly, it feels a bit uncharacteristic of Schumer’s brand that this movie wants us to judge her character’s actions so harshly.
  • In any way a reinvention or subversion of the romantic comedy. This is Schumer’s first screenplay, coached by Apatow for studio financing/distribution, and as such it’s both blandly paint-by-numbers and overstuffed with hit-or-miss bits for all of Schumer’s friends from her show and the New York comedy scene (most notably the brilliant Bridget Everett). While the character of Amy is refreshingly direct about her sexual needs and taking what she wants, that doesn’t mean she’s any less likely to do the predictable thing by the end.
  • A comedy. Trainwreck would be more accurately described as seriocomic, in the vein of all Apatow’s other films post-40 Year Old Virgin. It has a very serious and affecting subplot about her character’s MS-stricken father (Colin Quinn) and the tension that caring for him creates between her and her sister Kim (the wonderful Brie Larson). You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a borderline-manipulative storyline if you didn’t know it’s loosely based on Schumer’s real life (her father does have MS and she visits his care facility every week; she also has a sister named Kim, a.k.a. #roadmanager, who shares several traits with her onscreen self).
  • The beginning of a rich comedy career for LeBron James. Just…no.

Amy Schumer’s ascendance to comedy superstar this year has been one of the most exciting, encouraging cultural developments in years; sadly, Trainwreck isn’t quite the movie she deserved. It’s a mixed bag front-loaded with hysterical one-liners and gags, but with a somber (and not especially interesting) character study serving as its anchor. But perhaps given the anticipation around this title, there was really no other possible outcome than mild disappointment. Inside Amy Schumer itself usually has one dud for every two sketches that land. But when Schumer is on fire, no one and nothing can touch her; hers is one of the most vital and necessary voices in pop culture today. Trainwreck may not be the home run her fans had hoped for from her movie star debut, but like her TV show before it, hopefully Schumer’s movie output will get sharper and funnier with every new effort.

Trainwreck opens nationwide today.

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