Our Movie Critic's First Encounter With Amy Schumer Was No 'Trainwreck'

Judd Apatow's film exposes the boundaries of the romantic comedy genre, and the roles of men and women within it, in a way that challenges the audience.

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Trainwreck Directed by Judd Apatow; written by Amy Schumer; with Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Colin Quinn, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Vanessa Bayer, Norman Lloyd, John Cena, Marisa Tomei, Daniel Radcliffe

I only recently became aware of Amy Schumer. I’d heard her name, got that she is the hottest new thing in female comedy and that she fearlessly probes women’s issues, but I have never seen an episode of her show, “Inside Amy Schumer.” “Trainwreck,” which Schumer wrote and stars in, was my first encounter with her. The movie was directed by Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), the first film he has made based on someone else’s screenplay. The result is the most satisfying romantic comedy in a long time – a significant statement at a time when the genre, which breathed such wonderful life into many decades of classic Hollywood filmmaking, has long sunk into decline.

That is not to say that “Trainwreck” is a perfect romantic comedy. Far from it. One reason why the movie was so interesting to watch is the sense of chaos, which deconstructs the traditional romantic comedy and reshapes its parts so that they are permanently off-kilter. Schumer and Apatow serve each other well, but they also collide inside the movie, which strives to find itself a structure within the genre’s conventions. The result is interesting in part because it has such trouble arriving at that structure. The difficulty is symptomatic of the state of affairs between men and women, but also of the state of the romantic comedy – a genre that has always explored the relationship between men and women, upending it and then putting it back to rights within its social, cultural and ideological context.

Schumer is first and foremost a stand-up comedian, and “Trainwreck” is the first movie I’ve seen that, at least in its first part, has the distinctive, open-ended structure of a comedy routine. Unlike Meg Ryan, Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts, the faces of romantic comedy in the last decades, Schumer is not even a little bit sweet, not to mention coy. She plays Amy, a reporter for a magazine named “S’nuff,” whose editor keeps suggesting ludicrous story ideas (the editor is played by Tilda Swinton in one of those brilliant, eccentric performances that make her almost unrecognizable). Amy is the daughter of divorced parents; before he left, her father (Colin Quinn) instilled in her and her sister, Kim, the mantra that monogamy is unrealistic. Kim (Brie Larson) has taken an opposite matrimonial path – she is married and a stepmother – and has a rocky relationship with Amy and with their father, who has since become ill with multiple sclerosis and lives in a nursing facility.

Amy, by contrast, has thoroughly embraced her father’s conjugal philosophy. Her sex life consists of serial one-time encounters, at the end of which she sends the man home or, if she is at his place, immediately leaves. The very idea of sleeping together, much less “spooning,” causes a revulsion that is noticeable in her body language and on her somewhat blank face.

Mismatched encounter

The plot twist that threatens – the only verb appropriate here – to push Amy’s life off course, and thus to shift the movie itself onto a more conservative track, occurs when Amy is sent to write a story about Aaron (Bill Hader), a sports doctor, although she knows absolutely nothing about sports. We know Hader mainly from “Saturday Night Live,” where – as in the movie – he makes fine use of his somewhat bizarre and even perverse nerdy appearance. (Another SNL veteran who appears in the movie is Vanessa Bayer, with her signature broad smile; in one of the movie’s best scenes, which highlights its resemblance to an open-ended comedy routine, the editor orders her to stop smiling, and her attempt to comply is a wonderfully comic yet poignant moment.)

Bringing together a seemingly robust woman and an apparent weakling of a man raises the question: Can this mismatched encounter lead to what Amy has tried all her life to avoid – that is, romantic commitment, traditionally known as “love”? Like Amy herself, the movie seems determined to avoid this outcome, fighting off every convention foisted on it by the genre. The result is a battle – not of the sexes, as often happens in romantic comedy, but between different genre possibilities.

“Trainwreck” wriggles between the demand to follow the traditional romcom path, which ultimately brings the man and woman together and forges the basic social unit of the couple, and its desire to veer away from this conventional destiny. At times the movie seems to be drowning inside itself, and any struggle to escape the net it is trapped in only causes it to sink deeper. And while I chose the metaphor of drowning, the title gives us another apt description for what we are watching: not only Amy’s life, but the movie itself is liable at any moment to go off the rails and crash.

Schumer and Apatow’s way of dealing with this internal genre conflict is through irony, which fills even those melodramatic moments involving the father’s illness or Amy’s relationship with her sister. The very decision to include such materials, clichéd as they are, already shows the irony at work. So does LeBron James’ appearance as one of Aaron’s sensitive, supportive friends (it is hard not to smile when he mentions that he plays ball for the Cleveland Caveliers, recently the object of much Israeli pride when it made the finals under the leadership of “our” David Blatt; incidentally, sports fans will enjoy picking out other famous faces in the movie).

The immediate result of the movie’s essential conflict is that the more it progresses down the seemingly inescapable romcom path – because that’s what the audience expects of it – the open-endedness gives way to a more cohesive structure; the result grows less funny, but the doubleness caused by its constant irony is not diminished. This quality finds brilliant expression again in the ending, which is not just ironic but tinged with parody, leaving it to us to decide whether or not this is a triumph of conservative cinema over the subversive forces that have tried to oppose it. (If the movie has one real weakness, it is the inclusion of a black-and-white film starring Marisa Tomei and Daniel Radcliffe; this is supposed to be a parody of something, but it’s not clear what, and the result is completely redundant.)

“Trainwreck” is a romantic comedy laid bare. It has a theoretical dimension thanks to its resemblance to a comedy routine, an art form that, at its best, points to the signposts of the social and cultural landscape around it. As the movie unfolds, these signposts – which Schumer, both as a writer and in her character, usually indicates for us in a witty way – add up into a road that the movie follows as though under duress. “Trainwreck” thus exposes the boundaries of the romcom genre, and the roles of men and women within it, in a way that turns both the movie and its heroine into a challenge with which the audience must grapple.

In other words, this is a romantic comedy that does not go for easy laughs alone; our laughing can also become a rumination on what it is that struck us as funny. The result is an intelligent romantic comedy – a combination of words that has seemed impossible in recent years – that even requires a certain distance to enjoy. It sounds like a paradox, but Schumer and Apatow make it work.