by Philip Price
Judd Apatow is something of an enigma due to his seeming omnipotence over the comedy world in television and film. In truth though, he's only made five feature films and directed a handful of TV episodes for series he had a hand in creating. I understand the complaints lodged against Apatow and his comedies, but regardless I'm a big fan of his. In a strange way, Apatow seems to want to do with comedy what Christopher Nolan is doing with mainstream blockbusters. His movies are large in length, deep in character and entrusted with themes bigger than just those intended to make people laugh. Apatow is telling human stories and including the humor so often involved, but so difficult to naturally convey. To capture the genuine way we exchange laughs and cultivate jokes through piles of conversation and inside references is no easy task, but Apatow is attempting to crack this the best he knows how and, if nothing else, he should be applauded for the effort. Apatow wants to make comedy as epic and cutting to others as it is to him. While his last two features (“Funny People” and “This is 4”0) didn't receive the warm critical reception of his first two (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”) I couldn't help but feel I understood the journey he was on and the goal he was trying to reach. With his latest,”Trainwreck,” Apatow has ventured into new territory which is likely for the best when considering his career trajectory while simultaneously keeping his legacy intact. “Trainwreck,” though, doesn't feel like an Apatow film. This is due to the fact that it really isn't. “Trainwreck” is an Amy Schumer film through and through and there is nothing wrong with that, but any seasoned comedy director could have delivered this product. This is Apatow's first feature directing gig where he didn't also write the script and the lack of investment becomes apparent. Beginning with a shot that elicits the quality of the photographs produced in the early ’80s I imagined we were going to get a full throttle collaboration between two solid, comedic minds that understand perception and honesty to the point of delivering it in a funny manner. The comedy isn't the problem, the characters aren't an issue and the story is fine for what it is, but the directing seems to default to autopilot rather quickly so as to competently document The Amy Schumer Show. Apatow let's Schumer take the reins and doesn't infuse the project with his own flavor, making him feel more like a director for hire than a collaborator.
Some people may think this is for the best when it comes to “Trainwreck” as a whole. The less Apatow, the less indulgence, right? After all, this is Schumer's seeming breakthrough moment and this breakthrough was inevitable so why not at least have it ushered in by someone with the clout of Apatow, right? It makes sense for both of their careers and will only call for some to claim that Apatow is back (win for him!) while Schumer will get the broad exposure she and Universal were seeking with such a project (win for her!). If nothing else,”Trainwreck” serves its purpose in pushing forward the ability for a woman to make a film about the kind of woman she wants to make a film about. That the powers that be, whether those be Apatow or the producers he convinced to invest, decided to give Schumer this large of a platform and trusted in her vision all the way through to the delivery of the final cut is something to write home about and the comedian takes full advantage of this opportunity. Schumer, who began as a stand-up comedian and landed her own Comedy Central show, “Inside Amy Schumer” in 2013 has become an increasingly larger presence in pop culture as of late and while “Trainwreck” may not be the film we deserve from a collaboration between Schumer and Apatow, it is the one both of them needed. I say this because there is an element of missed opportunity to the cohesion of everything at play here while an opposing part of me asks, “what more could you ask for?” Schumer, who describes the film as being heavily inspired by her own real-life experiences and revolves around “a commitment-averse woman trying to get past her self-sabotaging ways,” is all you really need to know concerning the story. The film more or less plays to the archetypes of any romantic comedy you've ever seen that is set in New York City and then spins those familiar circumstances with a more grounded, real-world view.
While the beats are familiar and the outcome obvious, there is plenty to admire about the beast that is “Trainwreck.” First and foremost is Schumer herself as she delivers a more layered performance than I expected while also crafting a script that doesn't shy away from the complications that exist in life outside of the, “will they or won’t they end up together?” It's easy to see what Schumer's comfort zone is as she points and prods herself with unlimited self-deprecation so as to humble herself to those around her while slyly pointing out everyone's shortcomings. There is a cutting yet padded nature to her honesty, which Apatow was no doubt attracted to, and by including common attributes such as the NYC setting, the job at a style magazine, the lush apartment that job could never pay for, the clueless, but supportive best friend (Vanessa Bayer) and the potential game-changer who just so happens to have an amazing job and connections that will make the dating phase seem like even more of a fantasy than it already is, she appeals to the allusion all of those rom-com's of years past have given birth to before turning each on their head. Schumer, who plays a girl named Amy, is a mess. Amy is having fun, but at the cost of spoiling anything that might be worthwhile down the road. She of course doesn't realize this as she looks at men as little more than objects to be conquered for her pleasure and then set free so as not to enlist any expectation on her part. In short, she is like any male protagonist we typically see in these kinds of movies. Rather than making a film targeting women with a male still in the lead though, Schumer places herself dead center with the roles being completely reversed as every male character in “Trainwreck” is all in when it comes to long-lasting, meaningful relationships. Schumer isn't saying all men are like this, just as she isn't saying all women share Amy's mentality, but more making the statement there are always a mix of personalities and opinions, but that she's here to represent a different kind of one than we're accustomed to.
Outside of subverting these rom-com clichés though the film adds in the layers necessary for us to become truly compassionate with these characters. It is the added details of Amy's sister, Kim (Brie Larson), transcending their father’s advice that monogamy is a ridiculous concept to find happiness in a husband (Mike Birbiglia) and stepson, Allister (Evan Brinkman), despite Amy constantly questioning how anything such as a family could be more than an anchor. Add into this somewhat strenuous relationship the fact they have recently put their father (a wonderful Colin Quinn) into an assisted living situation that they are having trouble financing and everything all of a sudden feels more credible. This aspect of the story requires for Schumer to be as much a dramatic actor as she is a comedic presence and to my great surprise, she nails it. The ability to convey this range of emotions convincingly is almost symbolic of the range of talent Schumer still has to share with the world. Given “Trainwreck” is only serving as a glimpse of what we're in for — granted this film does well and Schumer is granted more opportunities like this — I can't wait to see what is to come. This more dramatic territory also balances the scale with the more fantastical elements of the script that deal with Bill Hader's sports doctor, Aaron Conners, whose life regularly has sports stars walking in and out of it, including LeBron James (who is really pretty great in a decent-sized role).
Speaking of Hader, he was maybe the more interesting hook of this film for me given I wasn't overly familiar with Schumer's stand-up, but had enjoyed watching Hader on SNL for years. I remember watching the "Finding Ben Stone" featurette on the “Knocked Up” DVD and wondering what it might have been like were Apatow not clearly positioning that film as the Seth Rogen breakout that it was. This featurette included a handful of mock auditions from other comedians in the role of Stone. The audition I remember the most was that of Hader's who had just started his run on SNL at the time and instead of acting like a regular guy kept doing different impressions for each take. Ever since Hader left SNL as one of the more celebrated players in the show’s illustrious history, I have been waiting for him to take a leading role in a major comedy that might allow him to transition from cast member to movie star. Given my hopes, “Trainwreck” couldn't have turned out better in this regard. Hader, who is typically required to play the off-beat and weird character is little more than the average guy here. Aaron has an exceptional profession, sure, but his ability to find a woman he enjoys spending time with and feels a sincere connection with is as complicated for him as it is for the rest of us. Hader also plays Aaron with such a charming and optimistic worldview that it's impossible not to like him. He means well in his intentions and has no ulterior motives that strike us as overly dramatic for the sake of being a character in a movie. Aaron, like Amy and Kim, are simply looking for things to make their lives more fulfilling. While Schumer cloaks her simple yet profoundly affecting statements in vulgar sex jokes and tons of alcohol it's easy to see that by the end, Schumer's own desires are as heartfelt as we'd all like to think everyone's are.
All of this isn't to say the film is a perfect balance of wit and charm or of light and heavy, but it handles all of this well if not experiencing some of the same issues Apatow always runs into. The film could certainly stand to be cut down a bit as more than anything there are too many characters at play here; some of which are given more screen time than necessary. John Cena is a surprisingly funny presence as a precursor to Aaron, but he gets one too many scenes as does the whole subplot concerning Ezra Miller. Cena has two big scenes with Schumer (one in a theater and one in bed) and both have their moments, but we only needed one of them for the point to be made. The whole storyline dealing with Miller's character is through Amy's job and concerns her boss, played by Tilda Swinton, who I've failed to mention thus far, but who I would have liked to see more of simply because her performance is so curious. While Swinton is something of a mystery in what exactly she's doing in this movie, Miller's presence only serves to set-up circumstances in the third act that could have been configured in a smoother way. Since we're talking about the third act, let's just say it lags more than it needed to. This is a staple of Apatow films as he allows scenes and jokes to go on longer than they probably should, but while “Trainwreck” finds it necessary to go through the whole "break-up before they get back together" deal I found it unnecessarily slow given the exuberant pacing of the rest of the film and the fact we know where it will end anyway. The final scene of the film really wins you over; it more or less redeems itself for its last act drag and leaves you remembering the good parts more than the necessary ones. I appreciate the efforts that attempt to make something prestigious out of dick jokes and that's what Apatow (if not necessarily as a director, but more as a supporter and mentor) has helped Schumer to craft here — an elegant and intelligent take on people who sometimes aren't.