“I’ve been with a lot of guys.”
“I don’t care! I…how many?”
“I don’t know. How many girls have you slept with?”
“I’ve slept with three women.”
“Me too! I have…slept with three women too.”
“How many guys?”
“What…like, this year?”
To a successful stand-up, a well-honed comedic persona can be an invaluable tool – part battle armor, part Kabuki makeup, part magician’s assistant. Such a persona, historically, particularly becomes the provocateur – your Kinisons, your Dice-Clays, and so forth. The late, great Richard Pryor was such a gifted mimic and storyteller that he could try on new roles two at a time ten times a night and still be hailed for his truth-telling authenticity*. Amy Schumer has enjoyed a meteoric, in many ways fascinating, rise over the past five years from relative unknown to buzzworthy stand-up** to television star to trending pop culture force. Through it all, the stage persona that has allowed her to not only reach but charm a significant audience – largely on the strength of, let’s face it, objectively filthy material – has remained more or less intact. Though she is the default focal point of every joke, Schumer offers neither illumination nor introspection. On stage, she presents as bubbly and purposely dim, the unfiltered, unconcerned ultimate party girl, all the better a posture from which to zing her listeners with devastating right angle punchlines and flashes of unexpected depth. Much of her stand-up material implicitly contrasts her empty-headed, hedonistic character – forever in search of her next personal convenience or one-night stand – with modern society, and finds precious little space separating their priorities. Having recently completed its breakout third season, her television vehicle, Inside Amy Schumer, paints with a broad brush while deploying its raunch even more surgically, and has become an increasingly valuable medium for the exposure and dissection of entrenched societal and institutional sexism. Like its creator and namesake, IAS is messy, ambitious, disarming, defiantly imperfect, and, on occasion, screamingly funny.
*In modern times, an airtight persona is probably the only thing that has kept Schumer’s wiseass former boyfriend Anthony Jeselnik from being torn apart by either marauding wolves or the pitchfork-wielding angry townsfolk that continue to unwisely congregate at his shows.
**Her lone traditional stand-up album, 2011’s “Cutting”, is one of the most confident and accomplished comedy debuts I’ve heard in years, a wealth of sly, exceedingly well-written jokes seemingly engineered to turn faces en masse either blue from laughter or red from embarrassment. One gets the sense she probably doesn’t have a color preference.
On the show, she’s not merely one character but many. The persona proliferates. It not only obscures but almost actively interferes. Through repeated exposure and analysis of the most potent thoughts and laughs she’s provoked, we may have a better idea now than we once did, but for the most part we still have no idea who the hell Amy Schumer is. Her first starring feature, the shambling, light-footed, cheerfully rude Trainwreck, pulls off the neat trick of seeming both plausibly autobiographical and like a natural extension of her established nightclub persona, merely blown up to the size of a movie screen. Here Schumer plays the inevitably-named New Yorker Amy Thompson, a talented but underachieving feature writer at one of those noxious, sub-Maxim male “lifestyle” magazines by day, and a commitment-phobic, fairly notorious playgirl by night. “Amy” is an amazingly functional full-blown alcoholic, a sort of high level personification of Schumer’s stand up character – smarter, more self-aware, and in active denial – balancing several ongoing, big picture personal developments against her hardwired, almost pathological pursuit of sexual adventure and steadfast refusal to grow up, both of which sadly, invariably trump most any external concern she’s confronted with. The earliest moments of Trainwreck contain a poignant and hilarious flashback to Amy’s childhood, as her father (a spectacular Colin Quinn) tries to explain the concept of marital infidelity to his young daughters in terms of the purgatory of only being able to play with one doll for the rest of their lives, then has them repeat the mantra, “Monogamy isn’t realistic” over and over before he leaves home. They’re five and nine. Soon enough, it’s clear his elder girl at least has taken his lessons to heart.
What’s also immediately evident in the Amy character, in a way that is rarely given proper credence in Schumer’s stage or small screen creations, is that she has a heart. Heart, of course, is both the main distinguishing feature and textual byproduct of the work of director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), Hollywood’s premier authority in alchemically rendering the irreverent with the sentimental. Amy seems an interesting enough person to view through the limited lens one might afford to Trainwreck’s namesake disaster – several steps away from the fray, say, but still within shouting distance – though you might not want to spend extended time with her. She’s bawdy and unpredictable out of the bedroom, bracingly forward and casually dismissive in it. You might see her apartment, but suffice it to say you won’t be staying the night. To this boozy, brassy, free-flowing sexual agency, Schumer grafts an affecting daytime look – a plucky, intermittently hopeful, appropriately jumbled mélange of possibilities and regrets – that verges on outright alter ego, and plays it all just beautifully. Trainwreck is the first film under the Apatow imprimatur to not feature him as a co-writer – the script is credited to Schumer alone – but it may also be the most instructive in demonstrating his overall value (in stability, focus, and applied personality) to a project. It’s as easy to imagine an Apatow script not pushing hard enough or doing otherwise insufficient credit to the Amy character as it is to imagine Schumer’s script degenerating into a formless mess with anyone else behind the camera. As it is, the film already plays as extended, observed behavior rather than ever being overly beholden to plot. The two collaborators are ideally paired then. Their care makes such a traditionally unbalanced mixture refreshing.
Having moved their irascible father into a new, “cheaper” retirement home, Amy and her married, responsible little sister Kim (Brie Larson, doing fine, understated work as the experiment’s emotional control subject) spend time sifting through his lifetime of accumulated knickknacks and New York Mets (yay!) memorabilia. What triggers fond or bittersweet memories in Amy, however, seems to instill only indifference in Kim, who would rather make pleasant small talk with her frumpy, everyman husband (ace stand-up storyteller Mike Birbiglia) and effete stepson, to whom Amy offers a sentence of interaction apiece before finding herself spent. Amy plays at a normal relationship with a surprisingly deep bodybuilder (once/oft/future WWE champion wrestler John Cena, who only proves a distraction when unclothed) even as an early montage shows her unceremoniously shepherding a procession of one-nighters out the door. When her imperious editor (a marvelously unstable Tilda Swinton) offers her an assignment profiling a groundbreaking sports surgeon (SNL’s Bill Hader, nerdy, even-keeled, and very appealing), Amy sees it as a professional boon but finds herself, against all her previous programming – and “better judgment” that she actively doubts/ridicules – personally conflicted. Any fool can see that Hader and Schumer make a wonderful couple instantly, which is why it’s so nice that the characters more or less agree to give in to the journey, their enduring happiness free of all but the most mandatory concerns for a film of this type. A lesser romcom would make the entire world turn on petty fights or stupid objections, or pile up external obstacles for its central couple. Instead, Trainwreck, which knows and trusts its characters enough to let them simply be, acknowledges Amy’s problems and frames her romantic struggle as an existential one. With so many years invested in shortchanging and abusing herself in the pursuit of consequence-less fun, she has to first believe she is worthy of this partner and the life he represents.
(If this all still sounds overly ponderous, please note that, as it unfolds, Hader finds himself fending off eager, repeated inquiries on his love life from mega-celebrity patient LeBron James, who plays himself here, winningly and ego-lite, as part schoolyard sidekick, part gossip reporter, and part junior representative of the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce:)
“Did you know Cleveland is great for the whole family?”
“Yes, yes. Yes I do. You tell me that all the time. You just randomly text me that.”
“Man, what’s wrong with that?”
“It’s just weird. It’s weird.”
“I got free texting.”
Schumer as a performer is so unmannered and effortlessly buoyant here that it’s almost its own strange affectation. The remaining cast follows her lead and shines without exception. Apatow’s normal repertory company (Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Jonah Hill, et al) is absent this time around, and in its stead he and Schumer have installed a murderer’s row of stand up talent in supporting and background roles. Besides the aforementioned Birbiglia and the truly affecting Quinn (even a supporting role can be the role your career), alt-comedy godfather Dave Attell appears as the sunniest, most cooperative street beggar in history, and he is but the tip of the iceberg of more prominent celebrity cameos, several each from the parallel worlds of sports and entertainment. Of the movie’s landslide of funny lines, some of them even quotable in polite company, none land harder than Cena’s, as his sensitive bodybuilder tries in vain to “talk dirty” during sex or to intimidate an unimpressed heckler during an arthouse movie, his every utterance taking on a pronounced, unwelcome, and escalating sexual connotation. Schumer imprints her considerable comedic sensibilities onto the character of Amy and opens her up to both scrutiny and moments of grace, yet the underlying performer’s persona never fully slips. Maybe things are just more fun that way. Clearly her status as not simply screenwriter but an unproven, outsider screenwriter, combined with Apatow’s guidance, freed her up to be as natural as possible. She has an innate, open-faced charisma that augments her smarts and seems tailor made for the movie business. By the time Trainwreck‘s breathless, eager-to-please, romantic finale rolls around, it’s entirely possible that every face in the house will be smiling, some possibly against their will.
Trainwreck has an overarching, lovable shaggy dog quality that either allows it to surpass and transcend its numerous coarser moments or makes them even plainly funnier, depending on the type of audience member that’s watching. True to the course of Schumer’s career thus far, it’s not difficult to picture viewers of all stripes being charmed, instantly, reluctantly, eventually, indubitably. As a warts and all character study by a first time writer and actor, Trainwreck acknowledges its limitations without ever chafing under them. As a romantic comedy, it is a breath of fresh air.
“Trainwreck” (2015) 3/4 stars