Comedian Amy Schumer is definitely having her moment in the sun. Over the last year, her Comedy Central show has been minting superlative press and reviews - it seems like every week there is a new sketch that everyone has to see. She has been making the talk show circuit spreading her unabashedly raunchy style of comedy. Now her first film work is in theaters.
"Trainwreck" is my first exposure to Schumer. Watching the film, I felt dirty, used, exposed and only slightly disappointed. In other words, I loved it. Well, most of it.
Amy, a writer at S'Nuff, a men's magazine, loves living in New York. She is in a relationship with Steven (John Cena) but also enjoys going out to bars, getting drunk, and going home with one night stands. Juggling all of this, she and her sister, Kim (Brie Larson, "Don Jon", Showtime's "The United States of Tara"), have recently put their father (Colin Quinn, TV's "Saturday Night Live") in a nursing home. Amy and Kim are still trying to come to terms with their father's horrible parenting skills, but Amy seems to have adopted one of his lessons to heart. "Monogamy isn't realistic". So she goes to the documentary and experimental films Steven likes ("The Dog Walker" starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei) but she also needs to experience other guys. One day, her boss, Dianna (Tilda Swinton) assigns her to write an article on a doctor specializing in sports surgery. She meets with Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader, TV's "Saturday Night Live", "The Skeleton Twins"), who has a very close relationship with basketball superstar LeBron James. Eventually, Amy and Aaron go out on a date, but Amy's credo begins to rear its ugly head, providing a potential escape when life gets to be a little too challenging.
Directed by Judd Apatow ("The 40 Year-Old Virgin", "Knocked Up", producer of many recent comedy disappointments) and written by Schumer, "Trainwreck" is a great, funny comedy until the story derails in the last act. Based on what I have seen of Schumer's schtick, she basically tells it like it is, eliciting a lot of laughs from her frankness and the ribald nature of her jokes. "Trainwreck" captures this to a T. But during the last act, the film swerves and suddenly becomes a traditional rom-com complete with happy ending. This is completely at odds with Schumer's persona and really contradicts everything that comes before it.
There have been many comedians whose stand-up challenges people, taking them to the edge of their comfort, who have go on to have successful movie careers. And in most cases, each of these gifted comedians has toned down their act for the big screen. Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield. I think Dangerfield is a good comparison. In "Back To School", Dangerfield is essentially doing one joke after another, loosely working in his film character's life. But in the third act, the relationship between he and his son has to be resolved, so Dangerfield loses all of his subversive comedy and almost immediately becomes a better dad. Father and son happily walk off into the sunset.
In "Trainwreck", Schumer's film Amy experiences almost the same thing. Fortunately, the rest of the film is good enough and funny enough to make up for this HUGE misstep.
As we meet Amy, she engages in a series of one-night stands, stumbles into work and has a catch-up chat with her co-worker Nikki (Vanessa Bayer, TV's "Saturday Night Live"). They are called into a meeting with Dianna (Swinton), the editor, who assigns Amy to write the story about Dr. Aaron Conners (Hader). During their first meeting, Conners quickly learns Amy knows little about sports when LeBron pops into the office to ask Conners out to lunch. As Amy meets with the doctor, she and her sister struggle to figure out how to pay for their dad's rest home. They are also packing up his house and this brings back a lot of memories of his terrible parenting skills and their long-lost mother. And Amy struggles to maintain her relationship with Stephen (Cena), who seems to think their relationship is better than Amy feels it is.
Schumer's film Amy is a "Trainwreck" with a lot of issues. Commitment-phobic, she has a lot of one night stands, gets drunk, she barely does her job, yet seems to excel at it. When she meets Aaron, who is pretty normal and charming, Amy begins to have second thoughts about this lifestyle and considers making some changes. All of this is great, funny and seems to fit with Schumer's comedy persona, giving viewers a good chance to experience her work.
But by the end of the film, the narrative gets bogged down with trying too hard to make Amy seem 'normal' and 'good'. As the story progresses, these moments become more frequent and the balance soon becomes unfavorable to the kind of laughs we so enjoyed in the beginning. For instance, Amy and her sister have many discussions about their dad and they visit him many times. We quickly realize that Kim is more upset about him than Amy is. This doesn't seem like the right way to go and is designed to make Amy look more sympathetic. This is a woman who has one night stands while in a relationship. Why should she appear sympathetic?
And as her relationship with Aaron continues to grow, she still tries to hold onto part of her hedonistic ways. But these more gradually disappear in the face of her growing desire to have a real relationship. This just doesn't seem like the character Schumer plays.
Written by Schumer, she has the ability to write something very true to who she is, what she wants to be. And the first part of this film displays this pretty brilliantly. But then she becomes a part of the Apatow machine. In each of Apatow's previous films as a director, raunchiness is the call to action. But in each, everything needs to be resolved in nicey-nicey Hollywood fashion by the end. Because of these shifts, each film seems overly long because we go from laughing at some hugely funny stuff, almost peeing in our pants, to sitting through long and excessive scenes meant to resolve everything and tie it up in a nice bow. The only time this works is in "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" - because of Steve Carell's performance as Andy, the sweetest guy in the world. He deserves a happy ending and we want that for him. In all of his other films, this shift seems like a cop-out. "Trainwreck" runs about 125 minutes, which is long for a comedy, and once this 'Apatow shift' happens, it starts to seem too long as well.
Let's face it. Apatow isn't the only director who has ever perpetrated such a shift in his narrative. This happens more than it doesn't. And the reason for this is most likely financial. I can think of only one 'recent' film that truly stuck to its guns and delivered on the promise, staying nasty and dark throughout. And "Bad Santa" didn't perform well at the box office. So, these shifts would seem to be an indication of audience preference because they continue to pay to see them. The filmmakers may be making the right financial decision, but the films suffer because of it.
Bill Hader has been doing some really great work since leaving the cast of "Saturday Night Live". Last year, he starred with Kristen Wiig in an independent film called "Skeleton Twins", playing a depressed gay man who returns to his sister's (Wiig) house in their hometown. In "Trainwreck", Aaron Conners is pretty normal, but this allows him to be a pretty charming romantic interest. The key to Hader's performance is that Aaron sees through Amy's act and recognizes the person underneath, the person looking for a real relationship. As a result, he seems to enjoy the jokes, the wisecracks, the antics.
And his relationship with LeBron James adds a lot of great comedy to the film. This is an element so out of left field, that it seems to work because of that very idea. In fact, LeBron pretty much steals every scene he is in.
Tilda Swinton is also a standout as Dianna, the brash, unable to care - or listen - about anything but herself power editor of the magazine where Amy works. Her character is often a surprise and Swinton makes her always fun to watch.
Colin Quinn plays Amy's dad, afflicted with MS and sent to live in a nursing home. Quinn is also a comedian and he seems to be channeling the spirit of say, Jim Carrey, and going for the full-on dramatic performance.
Interestingly, Norman Lloyd plays one of the other residents at the old folks home. Lloyd was a frequent Hitchcock contributor - he played a villain in the Master's "Saboteur" in the early 40s and was the driving force behind "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", the famed director's anthology television series in the mid 50s. Lloyd brings a level of playfulness to the role of Norman.
A couple of famous actors pop up in smaller, surprising ways and a number of recognizable character actors provide good work as the supporting characters Amy interacts with.
Amy Schumer is clearly funny and talented and the first two-thirds of the film are a great example of her ability. But I wish Apatow had not made the ending so untrue to the rest of the film. The last scene is just sooo wrong for this material, it is almost insulting.
But the first two-thirds of "Trainwreck" is very funny and more than makes up for the misstep of the last act.