Trainwreck is a strange, intermittently delightful romantic comedy. On one hand, it indulges in the most predictable tropes of the genre: the affluent characters all live in Manhattan, the movie dutifully follows formula, and it ultimately upholds traditional values. Yet Trainwreck is also subversive, and that’s due to the screenplay by comedian Amy Schumer, who is also the star: like her stand-up and the characters on her television show, the Schumer character (also named Amy) veers between principled ignorance and moments of pluck. More importantly, she is sexually liberated in a way that would have made rom com heroes blush twenty years ago. But for all its subversion and laughs, Trainwreck cannot overcome the dearth of chemistry between its two leads.
Directed by Judd Apatow, who wisely takes a break from writing after the disastrous This Is 40, the film opens with a flashback to Amy’s father George (Colin Quinn) lecturing her and her little sister. George faces divorce, and uses an extended toy metaphor to rationalize his infidelity. Now an adult, Amy is a staff writer for a men’s magazine who internalized her father’s rant to the point where her romantic life is nothing but one night stands. She has a quasi-relationship with Steven (John Cena), at least until he expresses real feelings, so she literally leaves him on the side of the road. As an actor and writer, Schumer invites judgment in a brazen, refreshing way.
The end to Amy’s casual lifestyle is Aaron (Bill Hader), a sports physician who she’s covering for the magazine. After an awkward initial interaction, they go out and – against her better judgment – she spends the night at his apartment (there is a great sequence where she complains about his sleeping habits until he’s practically in the next room). In spite of herself, Amy dates Aaron earnestly, and things go well until she prefers self-sabotage instead of actual discussion.
While Trainwreck belongs to Schumer, Apatow’s obtrusive style spills over every scene, no matter whether it’s meant for laughs or drama. His style is the editing equivalent of whiplash: he lets a scene play out longer than it should, leaving room for an overdone joke or some improvisation, then abruptly cuts away after the punchline already happened. It is a strange technique to affect realism; just like real life, the dialogue is sometimes meandering and ridiculous, yet it is also exhausting. Apatow’s comedies are long, and Trainwreck is no different.
The comedy sags and scenes sometimes lose their steam, yet Apatow and Schumer both have a gift for circling one-liners in an indirect, satisfying ways. The early scenes are the most successful because the editing and characters have not yet lost their luster. Amy’s boss is Dianna (Tilda Swinton), a cutthroat editor who does not suffer fools, and she dispatches staff ego as if it’s a turn-on. Aaron closest friend and de-facto co-worker is Lebron James (playing himself), and the stunt casting works way since James is a good sport and has strong timing. The film’s funniest moment involves Lebron and Amy, and it proves once again that few comedy tricks are more powerful than silence.
The workplace scenes are fun since they have low stakes and extended comic riffs, so Apatow falters with the more fundamental, plot-driven material. Schumer’s script simply never gives the audience a chance any spark between Aaron and Amy. Their first date flashes-forward from dinner to last call; there is a montage of cute subsequent dates, with Amy’s voice-over sarcastically saying how it’s all gross. By the time they have an actual conversation, it skips over the fundamentals as if we’re supposed to accept they’re a good fit. This narrative shorthand might work for an actor who has a track record in the genre, but Schumer/Hader do not yet have the necessary star power.
Steve Carrell was not an established leading man for The 40 Year Old Virgin, Apatow’s best film, and Apatow’s brilliant choice was to include compelling B-plots from the supporting actors (looking back now, the ensemble was stellar). Trainwreck goes through the motions of a similar ensemble, without investing much in what happens to them. There are a lot more cameos, not just from Lebron James, yet the problem with a character playing themselves is that there is no back story, or neuroses to explore. For all intents and purposes, Aaron has no friends since athletes are not the best actors, nor do they reciprocate in a way that a non-celebrity buddy might.
Amy has no friends, either, save one vacuous co-worker, so she spends more time with her sister Kim (Brie Larson) and her family. The Kim character is there to represent more mainstream life choices: she’s pregnant with a husband and stepson, so the tension between sisters has more baggage – and fewer laughs – than one might have with a friend. Schumer denies her hero a chance to seem relaxed, except for moments where she behaves horribly, so the movie explains her virtues more than it shows them. Without a chance to figure out Amy and Aaron for ourselves, the payoff is less than satisfying.
In her sharp review of Trainwreck, Stephanie Zacharek observes, “This is a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.” This is true up to a point, but it does not exactly articulate the problem. Romantic comedy is a genre defined by convention – all the couples end up together, or at least with some measure of wisdom – so the trick is that we, too, must embrace the convention of their union. These comedies end with actual suspense: the screenwriters, actors, and directors create a situation where we, the audience, ache for the leads to find happiness. Trainwreck plays with convention and subversion, just not where it matters, so the only reason Aaron and Amy are right for each other is that the script requires it.