Sunday, August 23, 2015

Film Review: Trainwreck (2015)

While a lot of romantic comedies are about the battle of the sexes, Trainwreck is a battle of sensibilities. Written by its star, Amy Schumer, its script bears the hallmark of her work as a standup and on her sketch show Inside Amy Schumer. It's incisive in its understanding of the (often sexist) ideas and tropes underlying a lot of popular media, and it seeks to subvert them in ways which are clever, funny and, where possible, dirty. An early scene, in which Schumer's character, also called Amy, has a one-night stand then pretends to fall asleep after receiving cunnilingus, leaving her partner to complain about his needs not being met, is a typical example of something Trainwreck does very well. It takes an established trope - i.e. men are inherently selfish when it comes to sex - then turns it on its head.

While Schumer's voice is the main driving force of a story about a woman who meets a guy (Bill Hader) who makes her wonder whether a long-term, stable relationship might be more fulfilling for her than a series of emotionally detached encounters, it is filtered through the lens of director Judd Apatow, director of improv-heavy, rambling comedies about arrested masculinity. While their respective styles are not wholly incompatible, there is a sense throughout of two slightly different versions of the same story running at the same time. At times, it seems like an unintentional homage to Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda.

One of the films is a heightened, broadly satirical comedy about the ways in which women are depicted in romcoms, featuring characters that border on cartoonish. It mainly revolves around Amy's job at a grotesquely extreme, faux-provocative magazine, a world which is presided over by an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton. It's a world where everyone is relentlessly, hilariously cruel to each other, and most articles tend to revolve around bodily fluids in some way or another. It doesn't feel like it takes place in the real world, nor does it pretend that is its aim.

That half of the film contains some of Trainwreck's best moments, a surprising number of which involve professional athletes. A scene in which Amy tries to coax her absurdly muscled and absurdly nice sort-of boyfriend (John Cena) into talking dirty to her, and pretty much any scene involving LeBron James, who plays the supportive best friend character to Hader's Aaron, have a sketch-like quality. A simple idea is explored in a quick burst, like a surgical strike of comedy. It's a funny film, but also a somewhat clinical one, since scenes like one in which Amy gets freaked out when Aaron calls after they first sleep together are by design divorced from an emotional reality.

The other is a fairly straightforward story of a relationship between two people who clearly like each other, but who approach their growing attraction with diverging viewpoints and life experiences, and the way that the two negotiate their differences. It's also the story of someone who views life through a lens of biting sarcasm coming to terms with the newfound domesticity of her sister (Brie Larson) and the physical deterioration of her father (Colin Quinn). It deals with some heavy material, and it does so with an earnest desire to portray the characters (well, the ones that don't work with Amy) as real people who have believable chemistry, and whose conflicts with each other come from a recognizable place.

While the comedy is really funny and the relationship drama is genuinely touching, the two halves very rarely overlap. As with most of Apatow's films (but particularly his last two, Funny People and This Is 40) there is a little sense that anyone involved cared that much about the big picture. Each scene works in and of itself, but there's little flow from one to the next, a pretty logy rhythm to the story as a whole, and wild shifts in tone and style. A very wacky scene in which LeBron stages an "intervention" in which a series of conspicuous celebrity cameos show up to try and help Aaron with his relationship comes mere minutes after a scene in which Schumer delivers a heartwrenching eulogy. The scene itself is funny, but it also could have been included at seemingly any other point in the move without making much of a difference. However, it could have been removed entirely and would have helped make the film leaner and more focused.

Trainwreck contains multitudes, and both of the films it tries to be are smart, funny approaches to the same subject matter. Yet Apatow's willingness to let his actors ad-lib and run with it, and his unwillingness to cut things that are funny in the interest of making a better movie, results in two halves that are pretty good, instead of one whole which is great.

Grade: B