Trainwreck

August 8, 2015
Amy Schumer in 'Trainwreck' (2015)
Amy Schumer in 'Trainwreck' (2015)

American comedy nowadays seems to consist largely of gross sexual scenarios and toilet humour. Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck is pretty gross, but if it rises above the competition it is almost entirely due to Amy Schumer, who wrote the screenplay with herself in the starring role. That character, also called Amy, closely mirrors many aspects of Schumer’s life, although one assumes the reckless sexual appetites are a comic exaggeration.

Schumer is no glamour queen. She puts her own description into the mouth of her female boss in this film, who tells her she’s cute enough but not intimidatingly beautiful. Cute enough to pursue a hyper-active sex life that has only one rule: no sleepovers. Amy’s promiscuity is more like a philosophical principle learned from her father, Mark, (Colin Quinn) who made his daughters repeat the mantra: “Monogamy isn’t realistic!”, when his predatory behaviour ended in divorce.

Amy has absorbed this lesson. She keeps up a constant stream of partners while maintaining a regular boyfriend on the side – a musclebound hunk named Steven, played by wrestler, John Cena. The bedroom scene with Steven is a masterpiece of bad sex, complete with suggestions that this mass of muscle is trying hard to convince himself he’s actually interested in women. The sexiest thing he can think of is protein.

The running gag is that Amy is the female equivalent of a womanising, macho slob. She treats poor, sensitive men as sex objects, falls asleep and snores as soon as she climaxes. She has no desire to get married, settle down and have kids – it’s the guys who nurture these fantasies.

Meanwhile, her sister, Kim (Brie Larson), has taken the opposite course, finding an excessively cheerful, pot-bellied husband (Mike Birbiglia) and becoming stepmother to the precocious young Allister (Evan Brinkman). The film gets great mileage from this vision of the nightmarish, Disneyfied nuclear family, even if the heroine will eventually succumb to its charms.

Amy writes for a magazine called S’Nuff, which runs features such as “You’re not gay, she’s boring”, and “ugly celebrity kids”. Her boss, Dianna – played wickedly by an a catty, vampish Tilda Swinton – decides that Amy’s outspoken hatred of sport makes her the perfect person to write a profile on Aaron Connor (Bill Hader), sports doctor to the stars. But when Amy meets Aaron something unusual happens – she falls in love. This conflict with her usual principles finds Amy struggling to overcome her attraction to this do-gooder, who is also a leading light in Doctors Without Borders.

Alas, this is also the point when the story fastens onto those train tracks that lead to a conventional Hollywood resolution. This is not exactly unusual for Apatow, who delights in pushing the envelope as far as it can go, before the natural order of bourgeois society is reaffirmed. There are echoes of those old films in which Katharine Hepburn spends most of the movie as superwoman, but ends as a happy housewife.

Aaron’s profession allows scope for numerous cameos by high-profile sports figures. The surprise is the towering LeBron James, who has more than a passing role and reveals a striking talent for comedy. He’s every bit as comfortable in front of the camera as he is on the basketball court.

It’s a shame that even the most outrageous American comedies have this need to show that sex, booze, drugs and parties are but temporary distractions that must be overcome for characters to achieve true happiness. Bad Grandpa (2013) was probably the exception to the rule. For most of Trainwreck Amy looks at Kim’s family arrangements with horror, and we share her pain. When she begins to crave this lifestyle the hard edge of the comedy is blunted. We’ve had our fun, and now it’s time to reinstate the middle-class American dream.

Sentimentality takes centre stage when Amy is forced to deal with the terminal illness of her foul-mouthed, unreconstructed father. Mark may be a shocker on all fronts but she loves him deeply. It’s part of Amy’s conversion from sexual desperado to a productive member of society. This redemption is a predictable part of any rom com, and it would be pointless to imagine a more subversive conclusion. We may at least be thankful for the wit and irreverence that Shumer displays for most of the journey before this train is brought safely into the station.

Trainwreck
Directed by Judd Apatow
Written by Amy Schumer
Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn, Le Bron James, Mike Birbiglia, Evan Brinkman, Vanessa Bayer, Ezra Miller, Jon Cena
USA, rated MA 15+, 125 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8th August, 2015.