Monday, July 20, 2015

Trainwreck (**)

Directed by Judd Apatow


Since Judd Apatow's 2005 masterpiece The 40-Year-Old Virgin, his feature debut, the comic's films have been spinning closer and closer to the sun. His insistence on indulging his and his friends' egos has left his films bloated and ponderous. His films are still funny, he allows his performers - all of them - to play to their strengths, regardless of whether those strengths mix well into a fully-formed film. Once he made Funny People in 2009, his films began to feel like a lazy puree of solid comedy bits searching for a plot. Trainwreck is a little bit more of the same, but there is one new element here and that's Amy Schumer. The comedienne has evolved over the last decade from a poor man's Sarah Silverman to a truly astute, intelligent comedic performer, supported by a hilarious Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer. Schumer is credited with writing the script here, but I'd like to believe that she didn't pen this film as the cameo-riddled, NBA athlete showcase that it eventually became. Apatow's tastes for big names who might not exactly have any talent in front of the camera rears its ugly head in Trainwreck in the worst way. It's almost as if he didn't understand that the star of his film is enough.

Schumer plays Amy Townsend, a thirtysomething single New Yorker who goes through men on a nightly basis and gets by through setting specific rules, mainly never stay over or have them stay over. Her reputation precedes her, and she's proud of it - when she wakes up in Staten Island at some strange man's house, she rides the ferry back to Manhattan, arms spread Titanic-style. Despite her healthy sex life, she goes out of her way to avoid actual romance, no doubt influenced by the ugly divorce of her parents when she was a young child. Trainwreck opens with a hilarious scene in which Amy's father Gordon (Colin Quinn) explains to his two prepubescent daughters that he is divorcing their mother because he was unfaithful. "Monogamy is unrealistic!" he declares. Amy's sister Kim (Brie Larson) has ignored their father's advice, has married a rather mediocre man named Tom (Mike Birbiglia) with a young, frighteningly precocious son. Amy sees Kim's life as a worst-case scenario, preferring her single womanhood. At work, Amy is a magazine writer working for S'Nuff, a flagrantly misogynistic rag that deals with a variety of juvenile, male-centric topics such as how to masturbate at work without getting caught or how garlic effects the taste of semen. S'Nuff is run by editor Dianna (a brilliant, spray-tanned Tilda Swinton), a blatant narcissist who thinks Amy has a chance at an editorial position. As a test, she assigns Amy to write a take-out piece on a sports surgeon named Aaron Cooper (Bill Hader), knowing full well that Amy hates sports.

When Amy visits Aaron in his swanky office, she can't help but reveal just how little she knows about pro sports. When Aaron's buddy, Lebron James (playing himself), bursts into the office to ask if they're watching Downton Abbey together, all Amy seems to know about him is that he happens to play basketball. But the two enjoy playing off of each other's dry senses of humor, and after a night of drinks, Amy very casually invites herself over to Aaron's apartment for casual sex; she makes a mistake though, she stays over. Aaron is sweet, sincere and doesn't understand how Amy could want to be intimate with him and not want to be in a relationship with him; Amy doesn't understand how Aaron could be intimate with her and want to be in a relationship with her. Aaron's persistence wears Amy down, and she comes to find that she actually enjoys being a girlfriend, allowing Aaron to show her some new things, inviting him to meet her family. But all the time, institutionalized by her self-destructive tendencies, Amy waits for the other shoe to fall, for the moment to happen that causes the passionate romance to fade. Add to that, she is also facing pressure from Dianna at the magazine and dealing with her father, who now lives in an assisted living facility that she and Kim can no longer afford. Will Amy be able to find the comfort in being in a monogamous relationship? Or was her father correct all those years before that it's unrealistic?

I was never a fan of Schumer as a stand up comedian. I found her material to be a bit infantile, and sex-obsessed in a way that wasn't interesting. These days, she's truly found her voice with Inside Amy Schumer where she is constantly plugging away at the double standards facing adult women when it comes to sexuality in America. It's disappointing to find that Trainwreck doesn't have that same satirical bite, instead relying on hackneyed aspects of the female-aiming romcom, even leaning on the forever-touted philosophy that promiscuous women really need a good man to set them straight. This feels like the kind of film that Schumer should have made five years ago. She seems smarter now, her ideas a bit more sharp. She's incredibly funny in the movie. Her timing amidst Hader, Larson and even with LeBron James, elevates the comedy that even they provide. Her scenes along Colin Quinn are surprisingly sweet, successfully weaving raunchy jokes and the complications of a father-daughter relationship together with surprising aplomb. Her stance as a funny lady shouldn't be debated, but the ideas in this script seem a little over-baked, pulled apart by foreign hands, made to please audiences outside of the ones that Schumer already has. It's hard for me to believe that Schumer originally wrote this movie with parts for LeBron, John Cena, Amare Stoudemire and Tony Romo in mind.

As for Apatow, Trainwreck doesn't quite reach the tragedy of Funny People, a movie that could have been truly brilliant if it were perhaps an hour shorter, but we are still preview to drawn-out sequences of improvisation, actors standing on screen a minute longer than they really should be. A marginally-funny scene involving LeBron creating an intervention for a heartbroken Aaron also includes Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick and Marv Albert. The scene is slightly over ten minutes long and it should have been zero minutes. His obsession with celebrity cameo has taken away from his strengths, and his inability to properly cut his own films does even worse: it waters down the jokes. What should be a well-landing punchline is just one in a slew of horse-carted jokes shoved into a single scene. Trainwreck does have a refreshing feel compared to his last few films. It's not obsessed with twenty-first century white slacker male. It's not tied to the chains of Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen, and it isn't just a video yearbook involving his wife and kids. But I wonder if a smaller director wouldn't have been a better choice, someone who's idea would be to take Schumer's script and turn it inward instead of outward. I almost wonder is Schumer herself wouldn't have been a better directing choice. At least she would've better understood that the film doesn't need much more than her humor.

As a comedy, Trainwreck works well enough. It will make you laugh, and if that's all you're coming for, it's hard to have a better time. It's what Apatow is best at, manufacturing riff contests between performers and playing their greatest hits. I think he may have forgotten all the other aspects that make up being a filmmaker; that, or he doesn't care. Schumer's screen presence is all but confirmed, and the best thing you can take away from here is that she can be very good in what is hopefully better films in the future. Why Trainwreck decided that it was going to be the film that kickstarted LeBron James acting career will probably be on of 2015's greatest cinematic mysteries. (**Full disclosure: I'm a die hard Miami Heat fan still embittered by LeBron's abandonment. I'd be remiss if I didn't at least admit that seeing him make jokes about it in Trainwreck left me a bit nonplussed.**) Apatow has taught us how hard it can be to make a great comedy. He made one in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a film that is so perfectly calibrated around diverse comedic performances. The ensemble work there is unmatched by any of the other Apatow films. His victorian ideals about what dick-and-fart-joke movies should be have left him in a place where he needs to do some soul-searching. It's a shame that he let that interfere with what should have been a phenomenal opportunity with one of biggest comedians working today.

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