2015 is has become the unofficial year of the woman for the film industry. Looking back on the first half of 2015, four of my five favorite films featured female roles that were either a strong co-lead with the male counterpart (Mad Max: Fury Road), essential to the storyline (Ex Machina), or the outright protagonist of the film (It Follows, Inside Out). The best part is that all of it felt natural and organic and seamless and none of it felt like it was shoehorning a story to promote female empowerment (not that Hollywood could be accused of that given the general lack for quality female roles). Coming on the heels of these films, Spy, and, to a lesser extent Terminator: Genisys in this year of strong female roles is Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, the latest film from director Judd Apatow. Trainwreck manages to bring the funny as a raunchy rom-com that is a return to form of sorts for Apatow and potential breakout lead performance from Amy Schumer.
Amy (Schumer) is the titular trainwreck. Instilled in her at a young age by her father (Colin Quinn) that monogamy isn’t realistic, Amy spends her personal life hoping in and out of no-strings-attached flings while sort of, kind of seeing someone, Steven (John Cena). In voiceover she tells us that she’s “just a sexual girl” and totally in control of her life, but evidence over the course of the movie suggests that there’s a lot of denial and rationalization going on here by saying she’s totally in control. She gets assigned by her boss at Snuff Magazine to write a profile piece about a sports doctor, Aaron (Bill Hader), and ends up stumbling into a relationship with him. She struggles to navigate these new relationship waters and the sports baggage that comes with Aaron’s profession, like his friendships with athletes like LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire, while trying to achieve a promotion at work and balance the fragile, contentious relationship between her father and her younger sister Kim (Brie Larson).
Most of the humor comes from the fact that Amy is not that great a person. She has her moments, of course, but too often she is the type of person who uses the “No offense” phrase in order to say the most offensive things. There is a level of blissful ignorance to how ugly a person she is, as evidenced by a breakup fight she has with Kevin. When he walks away saying she’s not a nice person, she proclaims, “I’m totally nice,” but in a way that lacks any real conviction. In a clever subversion of stereotypes, she basically acts like a typical guy who is a ladies man: she uses them for sex, doesn’t let them sleep over after sex, and says ignorant or insulting things with reckless abandon. Schumer is very funny and gets to do a lot of things with this character, whether it’s making bad first impressions, having awkward conversations, or saying inappropriately cruel things about kids. She also displays good emotional depth and range when the story calls for it later on. While there are no major epiphanies or drastic life changing moments shown, she does eventually come to the realization that she’s broken and not ok.
Her relationship with Aaron is what begins to change the worst of her traits. In the hands of a lesser director, given the role reversals of this film, Aaron could easily become the Manic Pixie Dream Boy that changes her for the better and magically fixes her, be the Kirsten Dunst to her Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown. But what is special about Aaron is that he is a normal guy. Hader is great here and, of course, has his own moments to shine comedically too.
Part of the reason that Amy is the person she has become is because of her environment. Her job as a magazine writer is for basically the trashiest possible Maxim-GQ-Esquire hybrid. Her boss Dianna, an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, creates a “creative” and horrible work environment. And she is also very much like her father, an irascible and generally mean old man living in an elderly care home because of MS. Of course, being her father’s daughter, she possesses a lot of self-destructive tendencies that come into play as the movie progresses. There is almost a pathological nature to how she sabotages her relationships, and it’s not just the romantic ones, as a pivotal scene at a funeral proves. She has to come to grips with the fact that it’s not just romance where she is a trainwreck, but quite a few areas of her life.
While the film is funny throughout it is also a little uneven at times. Some of the story feels a bit aimless, especially in the middle. There is an inconsistent narration that is at the beginning of the film and then abruptly shows up out of nowhere later on that caught me off guard. The relationship that starts up between Amy and Aaron just sort of happens, there is no indication of any attraction beforehand, especially given how bad their initial meeting goes. And there are some celebrity cameos that don’t make a whole lot of sense.
Luckily, there are a lot of funny supporting players around Schumer and Hader as the leads. Brie Larson is terrific as Amy’s sister Kim, another source of normalcy in her life that is probably easier for Amy to dismiss because she’s family. Kim’s husband (Mike Birbiglia) and step-son (Evan Brinkman) offer some lighter comedic relief from the more mature humor mined in the other area’s of Amy’s life. Colin Quinn is his typical sardonic self. Tilda Swinton is brilliant and outrageous as the editor in chief of Snuff Magazine, pulling off an Anna Wintour-like look with a sharp British accent. Vanessa Bayer, gets some good stuff to work with as a co-worker of Amy’s in a smaller supporting role while Ezra Miller is a young intern. Daniel Radcliffe and Marissa Tomei are (quite literally) in their own movie, an indie film that Kevin and Amy go to see about a dog walker that is not-so-subtly ribbing indie films. Dave Attell even pops up as a homeless guy outside of Amy’s apartment that she is friends with.
The real standouts of the supporting cast, though, are John Cena and LeBron James. Despite the fact that professional wrestlers do a certain level of acting in front of thousands of people live every week, it still is surprising when they successfully cross over into mainstream movies and are genuinely good at it. Cena is hilarious as a guy who expresses himself physically better than he does verbally and says a lot of things that sound unintentionally gay. Meanwhile, LeBron, one of the most famous and one of the richest athletes in professional sports plays against type of his perceived persona. Here he comes off, hilariously, as a cheapskate, but also a good friend of Aaron’s and maybe a little too invested in Aaron’s personal happiness. In a movie of role reversals, he is the protective and slightly overbearing best friend of the love interest.
Apatow is known for making films that are sincere and raunchy, skillfully mixing the sweet and the profane in previous films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. This is the first feature film that Apatow has directed that he didn’t write. Schumer wrote the script for this film and it is an impressive entry into that role for her. At just barely over 2 hours it didn’t feel bloated like Apatow’s two previous films, Funny People and This Is 40. Trainwreck is a welcome addition to this string of films we have had that are giving women something of substance to do in movies. Whether that is something that will be sustainable through the remainder of the year and beyond remains to be seen. The question of whether women can be funny that cropped up when Bridesmaids came out a few years ago was stupid; of course women can be funny and have been in movies for years. The question is about the quality of comedies that they are given and the relative quality of the rom-com genre to other genres. Amy Schumer in Trainwreck is just the latest example of how funny women can excel when they have strong material to work with.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars