Film and TV

Trainwreck Has Laughs, but at What Cost?

The problem with clamoring for more woman-led comedies is that actual comedy may be the thing that ends up being left by the wayside. Tina Fey, among others, has railed against the boneheaded dictum that women can't be funny. But in the current climate of watchfulness — one in which every joke must be constructed and sealed drum-tight so as not to offend anyone, at any time — it's not enough for a woman just to be funny. Women comics must also be spokespeople: for feminism, for all women, for anyone who might be perceived as oppressed or marginalized in any way. When you look at it that way, being funny is the unfunniest job in the world.

Amy Schumer is making her way ably to the top of this shaky ladder. She can be lacerating, but there's often something lecture-y about her comedy, as if we're being made to atone for years of laughing at plain old dumb stuff. That's the price we pay when we wish — as we all do — for smart comedy, and Trainwreck, if nothing else, strives to be smart.

Trainwreck is Schumer's first starring movie role; she also wrote the script. And while the picture is occasionally very funny — because when she lets loose, Schumer does have a fantastic, loosey-goosey wiliness — it also feels carefully constructed to make its points, chief among them that men can get away with all kinds of bad or crazy behavior that women can't. That by itself could be entertaining, if the movie just ran with it. But there's a much bigger, more insidious problem with Trainwreck: Schumer may be the writer and star, but Judd Apatow is the director, and in the end, you can't escape the feeling that somehow Schumer's vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies, even the best ones, follow: one in which the comforts of conventional partnerships and family life are what we should all aspire to, even though we may pretend to be interested in tawdry things like casual sex and excessive partying. Apatow and Schumer probably believe they've made a feminist picture, but the reality is something different. This is a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.

Schumer plays Amy, a writer at a slick lads' magazine in New York. (Tilda Swinton, in a rare comic role, is killer as the ruthless editor-in-chief — she's like a lamprey's mouth perched on long, long legs.) Amy is determinedly uncommitted and noncommittal; her parents' marital breakup, years before, led her to doubt whether monogamy is even possible. She favors one-night stands, and has lots of them, though there is one monosyllabic, musclebound dude (John Cena) she sees more frequently than the rest — somehow he believes they're exclusive and is crestfallen to discover his mistake.

Amy also drinks too much, and sometimes she wakes up uncertain how she found her way between any given set of sheets: One particular bleary morning, she opens her eyes and, spotting a Scarface poster on the wall, utters a quiet prayer: "Please don't be a dorm room." Between assignations, assorted life issues intervene: Amy has to navigate an affectionate but sometimes strained relationship with her sister (Brie Larson), while the foul-mouthed, racist father she adores (Colin Quinn) is in ill health and has had to go into assisted living.

Amy could probably just keep sleeping with random guys forever, but in the line of duty she meets a sweet, successful, super-nerdy orthopedic surgeon, Bill Hader's Aaron. She falls for him, irrationally and almost immediately. And because she doesn't see herself as the type who could settle down with just one person, she proceeds to make his life miserable.

The start of Trainwreck is promising. We think we're getting a movie where a woman gets to enjoy the company of lots of partners, without remorse or shame. But the trouble signs show up early: We have no idea why Amy is attracted to one guy or another, even just for a night. Before she meets Aaron, she doesn't even seem to enjoy the sex we see her having. There's nothing sensuous about Amy. She tackles her sex life with grim determination, and her lack of engagement — emotional or sexual — exposes a sneaky and unpleasant thread of conservatism: The movie wants us to buy the idea that sex really is best with your One True Love, and anything outside that is just a cheap substitute.

Meanwhile, there's lots of ribald humor — some of it effective — to throw us off the trail. Some of the actors, too, seem to belong in a much hipper movie. Hader is a charming leading man — his goofy smile is sexy as hell, a surprisingly potent secret weapon. LeBron James and Amar'e Stoudemire show up, in small roles, as themselves: James, in particular, hams it up and has a blast.

Schumer has the harder job shouldering the film, and there's no doubt she's game. She looks like a cross between an angel on a Victorian greeting card and a Campbell's Soup Kid, an unholy alliance that promises the right kind of trouble. But her character is at times so badly behaved — toward a man she supposedly loves — that it's hard to be on her side. Trainwreck pretends to be frank about sex from a woman's point of view, yet it refuses to reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is. A retreat into the safety of couplehood is the only possible future it can imagine, the necessary corrective to sleeping around. In its too-tidy universe, good girls don't. And bad girls probably shouldn't, either.

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Stephanie Zacharek was the principal film critic at the Village Voice from 2013 to 2015. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and of the National Society of Film Critics. In 2015 Zacharek was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

Her work also appeared in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly.

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