Recently, I watched Trainwreck, a film written by and starring comedian Amy Schumer. If you don’t know who Amy Schumer is right now, for an interesting introduction I would suggest reading Gail Dines’ critique surrounding Schumer’s recent cover of GQ which crystallises some of the anxieties and hopes about Schumer. In Amy Schumer, we see a lot of feminist hope in what her humour can potentially do, in a cultural environment where being a ‘humourless feminist’ has been a quick and easy way to dismiss arguments that are less than upbeat.
I will confess here that I get lost in YouTube rabbit holes of watching clips of Inside Amy Schumer, her show. Her skit, ‘I’m so bad’ is one of my favourites, speaking to the way that food consumption is so regulated for women that it is an easy way for women to bond over their ‘badness’ when they flout these rules. While not every single one of her clips which I have watched is a winner, Schumer’s observational prowess relating to the ridiculous conventions and habits of everyday life is, to say the least, impressive.
Despite this, in fact, I was not really looking forward to watching her movie, Trainwreck. I feared what might happen to Schumer, or my idea of Schumer, in a rom-com. I do acknowledge that romantic comedies are not necessarily ‘bad’ things. In fact they can be quite pleasurable. Sometimes I truly identify with Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses. But as film scholar Diane Negra notes, of late, romantic comedies are often ‘retreatist’. Girlish heroines do find happiness, but in renouncing an unruly, unattractive, usually career-seeking part of themselves. If, at the beginning of a film, they are successful in a large metropolis, their character arc requires them to ‘go back home’ to their small town and find their place there. Narrative conclusions privilege hyper-domesticity (Negra’s term), or a return to work that is more feminine than their previous job. In essence, romantic comedies offer a fairly traditional vision of the restoration of ‘gender balance’, as a fantasy of ‘the good life’.
So, with a name like Trainwreck, I was worried about a character progression where Schumer might be similarly tamed. After all, the promotional poster has her defiantly drinking wine from the bottle. But the action starts off in New York (or in Stanton Island), and ends in New York. And I think that at the extremely warm and funny scene at the end of the film, the protagonist is changed – but not given the traditional rom-com treatment.
Schumer plays Amy Townsend, a writer for lad magazine, S’nuff. She loves drinking. She has many one night stands. She is, I guess, commitment-phobic. The change to her lifestyle is catalysed when Tilda Swinton as her unsympathetic older female boss (yes, the film is not free from stereotypes), assigns her to a story where she must interview a surgeon who reconstructs knees and other body parts for famous athletes. Amy notably hates sports. They are useless and silly. But she does like Aaron, the surgeon, played by Bill Hader, who represents the stability and niceness which she has not yet had in her life.
I actually really enjoyed the film but what really prompted me to write this review was a scathing article by journalist Guy Rundle on Trainwreck’s ‘perverse moralising’. In what he terms Schumer’s ‘Guide to Life for B-Girls’, Rundle feels that the films is just not shocking enough. To be fair, as in the ‘I’m so bad’ skit of Schumer’s I mention, it does mobilise some edgy as well as gross out comedic elements but not many. Apparently not enough raunch for Rundle. Aligning his hopes for Schumer and Judd Apatow together, he argues the lack of shock comedy means that the only ‘trainwreck’ in the film is the way that Schumer gets drunk and has sex on a first date. Disappointing indeed.
To be clear, the film is not really a gross out comedy. Her drinking is not shocking. (It is funny, though, and much more relatable than something that would meet gross out proprortions). I also agree that Amy Townsend is not really a trainwreck in the film. But a film which purported to show a real ‘trainwreck’ of a person and then ‘redeem’ her as the happy ending of the romantic comedy dictates would be too moralising. Amy’s dating, drinking, and writing job are all fine. Amy’s real problem which the film gets to is the way that she is too focused on self-protection, and accordingly cannot fully consider others’ feelings. It is a flaw which I think feels understandable and real. There are moments when Amy is uncomfortably mean to a guy she is seeing, her sister and her nephew. Her father’s bitterness in the film is similarly discomfiting at times.
Rundle suggests that it is highly unrealistic for a (male) celebrity surgeon like Aaron, Amy’s love interest, to not have had sex in six years. I do agree. Yes, this perhaps was too easy a go-to statement, intended to hammer home his character’s self-deprecating nature. But there are other moments which are more real, like when the film reaches its ‘major hurdle’ moment. You know, the moment where there is some kind of conflict or problem which throws a spanner in the works which must be resolved at the end. As I don’t want to give this away, I can only say that this part isn’t overly confected. Refreshingly, there is no incredulously large and humiliating misunderstanding, bet or lie that is required to build the conflict in this part of the film.
A final, minor point. It did bother me towards the end when Schumer is preparing for the happy climax of the movie (this is not a spoiler, you know that there will be a happy ending) where she is clearing away massive numbers of wine bottles in her kitchen. I think that is a misguided reflection of the ‘flaw’ that Schumer is portraying. It isn’t her excessive love for alcohol and partying; it is her risk-averse attitude towards other people. It is possible to see this as part of the ‘moralising self-acceptance’ which Rundle despises in the film. But personally, I think this is an ungenerous way of characterising the ways people try to manage how they feel, which Schumer makes a really tender and substantial attempt to grapple with. Trainwreck navigates the sentimental and the comedic in a way that is pleasurable to watch. But you’ll have to see for yourself.
Mini spoiler: the ending has some amazing dancing.