A comedic godsend, at least in the eyes of those who worship her, Amy Schumer is a current cultural beacon, and in many ways, a void-filler. So it’s fitting that her first major film is a rom-com. The hardest-to-reinvent Romantic Comedy—two words that instantly yield lowered expectations—seems at once in need of resuscitating and never worth the effort of fixing. This genre is an exercise in trope-diving, destined to repeat itself, and yet we always wish for This One to be different. You’re either a dreamer or a cynic. And any movie that falls in between is doing something right. Trainwreck falls in between; it’s funny in the right places and cautiously aware of its format. It’s a rom-com that doesn’t need saving.
Unlike Inside Amy Schumer, the Judd Apatow-directed and Schumer-written Trainwreck isn’t the refreshing answer to something missing. It’s regular as hell. And it’s arriving just as Schumer is being trotted out as the next big thing, which is happening because so many people—so many white women—find her self-critical humor familiar. She feels like someone they know, whether close or distant, which is precisely the mark of a likable rom-com protagonist: a human you believe to be good and true. Schumer’s real-life persona is that of a recognizable symbol of feminism and normalcy, and a bold voice who’s been christened a comedic game-changer in the vein of other of-the-moment white ladies like Tina Fey and Lena Dunham.
In Trainwreck, Amy plays Amy, a single New Yorker with a racist homophobe of a dad (Colin Quinn) who tells a young Amy and her sister Kim (Brie Larson) that monogamy “isn’t realistic,” using an analogy to explain why mom and dad are divorcing: “Would you like to play with one doll for the rest of your life?” Later, when she’s older, Amy prefers a detached sex life, despises spooning and avoids committing. She has awkward interactions with her sister’s tiny geeky
son stepson (which make for some of the funniest moments). Like any dating thirty-something, in that you-know-how-we-are way, she grimaces when she finds out her sister is pregnant again. Conversations with married prudes bore her. She’s in no rush to deal with her problems and explains in a narrative voiceover, “I’m just a sexual girl, okay?”
She’s also a writer at S’nuff, a men’s mag where stories like “A Guide to Not Getting Caught Beating Off At Work” get pitched. Its absurdly unapologetic Brit editor Dianna (played to a tee by Tilda Swinton) shrewdly amends this to “A Guide to Getting Caught Beating Off At Work.” She also backhandedly describes Amy as clever but “not too brainy,” “pretty-ish” and “approachable,” part of a running joke where Schumer pokes fun at her real self via fictional characters. (Another is when Movie Amy’s brother-in-law Tom played by Mike Birbiglia casually calls her a whore and says it’s okay because she said it first.)
Sports-illiterate Amy’s big assignment is a profile on sports physician Aaron Conners (Bill Hader) whose patients are athletes like Amar’e Stoudemire, Tom Brady and What’s His Name From What’s That Team. I’ll stop and note at this point that I’m a shameless sucker for a cheesy rom-com, especially movies for cynics. In the past few years, I’ve endured any mediocre two-star flick I can find on Netflix—most recently, They Came Together with Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler—laughing at them to the point that I worry I may be unable to discern the actual good rom-coms from the bad ones. This is compounded by the fact that the genre now laughs too much at itself, too, which often makes it frustrating to watch, let alone read, about them. Jaded as I am, I still retain the hope of mushy love that a rom-com requires of its sheep viewers.
Anyway, Amy and Aaron fall for each other. He’s drawn to her humor and bluntness, and she’s weirded out by and drawn to his transparency. (She makes sure to note that their interaction as writer-subject is clearly inappropriate.) They become, as Amy says, “the whitest couple in America.” Along the way, she has panic attacks, fearful of becoming the same married cliché she’s avoided. It says something that she ends up being roped in anyway. The point is, why do what everyone expects, but also, why not? Nobody ever has the answers.
Focusing the movie around Schumer’s persona and brand of humor, so that it looks and breathes like her, is the smart and obvious move. The opening even feels a little too much like a series of standup bits. But even if you don’t love her shtick, there’s plenty to laugh at, particularly her dating woes. There’s a sensitive bodybuilder Steven, played by an ass-baring John Cena whose dirty talk includes sports and protein references. There’s a long commute of shame on the Staten Island Ferry after a one-night stand.
What’s supposed to make Trainwreck different—as much as it’s so much the same—is its celebration of a sex-loving, weed-smoking, non-pixie woman as a regular thing. This is the crux of Schumer’s comedy, which makes her a natural choice for a rom-com. Might this same sleep-around persona that’s so lovable be less heralded if she wasn’t white? Pretty sure. Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer works mostly because of its power to flip everyday sexism into genuinely funny skits about how women (in a relationship, in the workplace, etc.) are supposed to be. They state the obvious and that’s Schumer’s strong point.
Outside of those clips, however, my connection to her was limited going into Trainwreck. I tried watched a stand-up act of hers last year and found the accidentally-racist, coke-snorting white girl thing unfunny. I got 15 minutes into 2012’s Women Who Kill before turning it off, right at the bit where she tells a story about a Hispanic guy she dated who she called a “wetback” (it doubles as a dirty joke) and told to “get back in the kitchen.” She ribs earlier in the set: “People always think that because I’m a white female that I don’t deal with racism. And I don’t. But I saw that movie Jungle Fever. I get it. I love black-and-white movies.”
After Schumer was criticized for bits like this, she wrote on Twitter, “I go in and out of playing an irreverent idiot. That includes making dumb jokes involving race. I enjoy playing the girl who time to time says the dumbest thing possible and playing with race is a thing we are not supposed to do, which is what makes it so fun for comics. You can call it a ‘blind spot for racism’ or ‘lazy’ but you are wrong. It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it.”
Acknowledging the racist element is a step, but there’s a level of detachment to some of these jokes that feels too exclusionary to fully enjoy and it’s tiring. We’re supposed to not take it too seriously. Even in Trainwreck, the black jokes are ones about the absence of black people. An introductory meeting with Aaron in his office segues into a convo about whether she has any black friends. “Do you have a problem with black people?” he asks. Amy insists that she knows a bunch and shows him her phone, which has a picture of her, a white friend and a black waiter’s arm. Joking about not having black friends is the new having a black friend.
I tried not to think about it too deeply. Ignorance from outsiders can be funny but it’s also, in part, taxing. Schumer is better when blasting herself, and Trainwreck does a great job of justifying her mass appeal.
It’s a good thing LeBron James, a bright spot, is the token black sidekick in this. Based on the Trainwreck trailer, I was more excited to see his performance than anything.
Conclusion: LeBron is a good actor. LeBron is hilarious and someone should definitely hire him to star in another movie. And now that I think about it, I don’t think LeBron laughed once in this movie. Like LeBron, so much of the movie is about playing against expectation.
As LeBron James, LeBron is the concerned friend who’s excited about the idea of his buddy finding love after a six-year drought that included a woman who never gave him her address. He’s a pleasure to watch, and his comedic ability and charisma is highlighted even more by the fact that Amar’e Stoudemire (as Amar’e Stoudemire) has absolutely none.
Trainwreck proves that of course you can use the rom-com template to great effect, even if it’s recycled. Then again, I wonder why I always fall for these tricks and why it still feels good. Why are we still wondering why rom-coms suck? Falling into the trap can be fun, if the movie has enough humor and humanity and tells us something convincing about love, a universal language both common and rare. Trainwreck is different and solid because it’s less try-hard than its genre entails and because Amy Schumer is being herself. And yet it’s way too long, and still has requisite sight gags, a meet-cute, a dumb breakup, and the dumbest ever sweet grand gesture. It can’t help falling for itself.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images via Universal Pictures