Why 'Trainwreck' is the most polarizing comedy of the year
Based on whichever review of Amy Schumer's new movie "Trainwreck" you read, you learned it's either an incisive critique of postfeminism or a conventional movie merely dressed as a progressive one. You may have heard (from us) it's an ingenious star vehicle that forces director Judd Apatow to break outside his comfort zone and tell someone else's story, a feat he often does well. But you may have also heard "Trainwreck" is another overlong, under-focused Apatow drama masked with raunch. In fact, the most definite thing I can say about the quality of "Trainwreck" is you've probably heard a lot about it.
For me, the problem is it's all correct. "Trainwreck" has stuck with me like no other movie this year because its levels of success and failure spike and plummet without warning. It is the strongest, weakest movie of the summer. There are glorious moments of well-acted comic mayhem, and there are also boring, borderline bizarre moments of ineffective characterization. It's a mishmash of lean, keen dialogue and misplaced DVD extras. Here are all of its best and worst pieces for us to try to fit together. Spoilers ahead.
Best: The versatile performance of Amy Schumer
Schumer reminded us in our interview with her that she's a trained actress, and that shows in her performance. She nails the hilarious awkwardness of sex scenes (particularly the early moment with the well-endowed guy), the pain in a key funeral scene, the unsettling intrigue of a guy who wants to court her (Seriously, study her face during the scene where Dr. Aaron, a.k.a. Bill Hader, insists they start dating), and the alienation of being surrounded by "the Real Housewives of Hell" at a baby shower. She's offering up more sides of a protagonist than we usually get in a romcom, and that unexpected breadth is fantastic.
Worst: The dated homoeroticism of John Cena's character
While I admire John Cena's intensity as Steven, Amy's musclebound paramour in the movie's early scenes, it was disappointing to realize that his comic arc amounted to macho proclamations of homoerotic desires. He describes the contours of his own body sinew when asked to be verbal during sex. He gets into a fight with a guy at a movie theater and (intentionally?) insinuates that he wants to have aggressive sex with him. Frankly, Cena's adept performance gives you the impression you'll be seeing a more interesting character than you get. We're just supposed to find the juxtaposition of Mr. Olympia angst and homosexual tendencies funny.
Best: Tilda Swinton is fine, but Vanessa Bayer is fantastic.
I'm a little annoyed that Tilda Swinton is getting so much credit for playing one of the film's simplest characters (a maniacal, unfeeling magazine editor) while Vanessa Bayer's nuanced work as Schumer's grinning, somewhat dim coworker Nikki goes unheralded. The movie's greatest moment might be Bayer's look of dumbfounded nervousness when Dianna (Swinton) requests an article on whether garlic makes semen taste different. Bayer's flabbergasted reaction when Dr. Aaron calls up Amy for a second date is priceless: "That does it. I'm calling the police." Her particular brand of earnest battiness has been an asset to her "SNL" characters, and in "Trainwreck" she is uproarious.
Worst: "Trainwreck" wants us to mistake LeBron James for a spectacular comedian.
Yes, the addition of sports legend LeBron James as a best pal to Bill Hader is funny. It's unexpected. But I'd say there's one too many unnecessary LeBron scenes, like his one-on-one basketball game with Hader. Since his casting already feels like a bit of pandering to male viewers, the strange attention he gets as a character -- including that dud of an intervention scene with Marv Albert and Chris Evert -- seems excessive.
Best: Amy's ambivalence about dating is believable.
As much as we're supposed to believe Schumer's character is a mess, her life of flings and drinks seems mostly bearable and fun. Plus, her sister's tame monogamy seems boring. I get why Amy chooses her life. That feels like a tiny accomplishment, but it's critical in establishing the movie's tone.
Worst: Amy's climactic dance sequence and romantic revelations are not believable.
You're trying to tell me that Amy, a savvy magazine writer with a sweet apartment and wry sense of humor, chose to impress Aaron by staging a big dance with a bunch of cheerleaders and showcasing her awkwardness? It felt way too cute to me. Way too Drew Barrymore. Worse, her tearful admission to her sister that she's never felt entitled to a serious relationship feels like an apology for the type of lifestyle "Trainwreck" initially purports to endorse. Amy's character is given plenty of reasons to favor singleness; by movie's end, we've learned nothing about why she should feel sorry for having been promiscuous or, better yet, unlike her sister.
Ultimately, "Trainwreck" is full of hilarious cynicism, occasionally funny caricatures in supporting roles, and weird, seemingly accidental moralization. I can't decide if that's a success, but it's an intriguing and contradictory film I can't get out of my head.