The Fundamental Problems With Trainwreck

There are many reasons to be excited about Trainwreck.  It’s the latest Judd Apatow movie, written by and starring rising comic star Amy Schumer.  It tackles the miserable process known as dating in the modern age.  Brie Larson’s in it!  So is LeBron James—and, against all odds, he’s a smashing success.

Before we determine whether it lives up to those expectations, let’s dive into the story: this romantic comedy chronicles the topsy-turvy life of 32-year old Amy (Schumer) in New York City, who has one of those Movie Jobs as a writer for an edgy men’s magazine.  She and her sister Kim (Larson) were scarred as kids by their philandering father (Colin Quinn), which led the latter to settle down immediately with a traditional family but pushed our heroine towards a life of casual sex and hard partying into her 30s.  However, Amy’s lifestyle is challenged when she’s assigned to write a feature on a sports doctor named Aaron (Bill Hader), who’s sweet and ready for commitment.

Trainwreck poster. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Trainwreck has a rough opening act, full of scenes that aren’t nearly as sharp as it thinks they are.  The first serious partner of Amy’s that we meet is Steven (John Cena), who wants to marry her but is also quite gay, a combination neither funny nor conceivably explored.  Schumer delivers amateurish, cringe-worthy moments, like an early pitch meeting at her magazine (the editor is played by Tilda Swinton) and, oh yeah, that bizarre exchange where Amy seems uncomfortable with Black people.

The second act is better.  Hader is warm as the doctor, and his friendship with LeBron leads to some of the best scenes.  The one with the two of them having lunch, wherein LeBron coaches Aaron romantically, gets on his case for not visiting him in Cleveland, and magically ‘forgets’ where his wallet is, probably represents Trainwreck’s apex.  It’s pretty remarkable how much LeBron doesn’t look out of place here.

There are also some bitingly accurate depictions of modern dating, most notably in the scene where Amy and her friend can’t fathom why a guy would possibly call to hang out after having sex.  Likewise, the movie effectively shows how Aaron is more experienced and comfortable with having a normal fight with an S.O., whereas Amy assumes that it obviously means that it’s time to part ways.

Unfortunately, the further you go, the more apparent it becomes that the story is fundamentally broken.  Inverting the typical gender roles of who wants commitment and casual fun is a nice start; but you can never shake its disturbing undercurrent: that a woman with a good job, supportive friends, active social life, and nice apartment has a problem because she’s not monogamous.  Actually, it’s not even an undercurrent.  Just watch the trailer or look at the title; that message comes in as a tidal wave.

Of course, movies for decades have been telling people of both genders that they aren’t complete without one single perfect counterpart, and it’s more cinematically convenient to pair someone up with one other person than with multiple partners (or nobody).  But you don’t have to spend too long pondering our history of oppressing, judging, and boxing in women to understand that forcing a woman to link up romantically comes with more baggage than telling a man the same thing.

And let’s not mistake it—Trainwreck does ‘force’ it; as a Slant Magazine review wrote, it’s actually the first Apatow movie “that posits any alternative lifestyle [to monogamy] as unquestionably self-destructive.”  And that warning comes largely through the weak character of Amy.

As Wesley Morris put it, “Amy’s a mess – not in the way “train wreck” would imply, just as a conception.”  And the movie never gets a good handle on her, judging her for the wrong things and giving us precious little to hold onto.  Her promiscuity is apparently so dangerous that it requires layers and layers of Freudian exoneration, which sort of undercuts the entire premise of the film, and it also shames her for a drinking problem she doesn’t really have (a bit of a buzzkill in a rom-com).  On the other hand, her bizarre bigotry and extreme levels of narcissism get ignored.  But perhaps the movie can’t assess her properly because she’s so sketchily defined.  Eventually, as Morris noted, “you’re asking yourself who is this woman, and what is it Schumer is trying to say with her?  If the character doesn’t work, then neither can the movie.”

The character work doesn’t improve as we go down the line.  Aaron is a total blank slate, the classic undeveloped object of affection that we’ve been seeing in these movies since the dawn of time, which further sinks our interest in the relationship.  And the supporting pieces (namely Steven, Amy’s boss, and the intern) showcase over-the-top zaniness at the expense of any humanity; they feel like what they are: first-time screenwriter creations.

These problems illustrate Trainwreck‘s inability to handle anything more complicated than LeBron schooling Hader on the basketball court (a funny, if isolated, scene).  It’s overstuffed with various Serious Issues, but all the allusions to homosexuality, alcoholism, and race land jarringly.  Aren’t we a couple years/decades too late to be making jokes about big strong men possibly being gay?  Is there any narrative purpose to the scene on the subway with the stereotypically sassy Black lady?  Why does the Black man at the movies have to call Amy a bitch just because she’s talking?  Would anyone say that at a movie theater, even if he wanted someone to shut up?  Of course not.  It’s just a way to add ‘edginess.’

It apologizes repeatedly for Amy’s sexual history, thus digging in its heels on an issue that forward-thinking millennials (i.e., the target viewers) don’t much care about, before forcing her into a committed relationship that crescendos with a nonsensical kiss-as-onlookers-cheer moment that her character should despise.  It all feels like weak have-it-both-ways ass-covering, and in an era of more confident (and funnier) pop culture like Broad City and You’re the Worst, Trainwreck already feels startlingly dated.

These attempts at boldness serve as misdirection away from the film’s soft, mushy center.  The movie truly could use an added sense of danger, just not in the ways it seems to think.  If you really want to show us the hot mess promised by that poster, a girl who has a few one-night stands before settling down and likes the occasional extra glass of Chardonnay just isn’t going far enough.  In its rush to get to monogamy, the movie makes Amy’s choice too easy: she never even threatens to make Aaron jealous, never seems to be struggling with this supposed change in her lifestyle.  The result is an overlong second half largely devoid of dramatic tension.

There is something refreshing about seeing a rom-com heroine who doesn’t fit the stereotype we’ve seen countless times—or rather, there would be, if this movie had actually owned it.  In actuality, its purported progressiveness is a farce.  It apologizes repeatedly for Amy’s sexual history, thus digging in its heels on an issue that forward-thinking millennials (i.e., the target viewers) don’t much care about, before forcing her into a committed relationship that crescendos with a nonsensical kiss-as-onlookers-cheer moment that her character should despise.  It all feels like weak have-it-both-ways ass-covering, and in an era of more confident (and funnier) pop culture like Broad City and You’re the Worst, Trainwreck already feels startlingly dated.

Trainwreck reminded me a bit of 2011’s Friends With Benefits, with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis.  That movie also dealt with changing sexual mores in a romantic comedy that tried to do things a little differently. (They share smaller details as well, like a protagonist caring for an ailing father and a farcical movie-within-the-movie.) But FWB, as usual, is just better: the chemistry between the leads sizzles in ways that don’t happen here, such that you feel both their carnal and emotional compatibility, and it isn’t so blatantly patting itself on the back for its (not-even-all-that) progressive attitude.  Trainwreck is a decent date movie, but you should always consider treating your date to something better than ‘decent.’  Whether or not you want to see them again the next day.

(Featured image courtesy Judd Apatow’s Twitter feed.) 

Grant J.

Grant J.

Grant co-founded Earn This in 2009 and is a regular contributor. His music taste makes him seem a lot weirder and sadder than he really is.

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