‘Trainwreck’ May Not Be A Feminist Masterpiece — But In A Rom-Com This Good, Does That Matter?
It's not gonna change the world, but we shouldn't expect it to.
The fact that you’ve clicked on this means you’re very likely one of my own: a disciple of Schumer. Hello, and welcome. It has been a great and prosperous time for our people.
But coming out of Trainwreck, this fandom can take you in one of two ways: either total elation — satisfaction at seeing your favourite comedian doing her thing on the big screen — or total disappointment. Whether she sought it or not, Schumer’s new title of “feminist icon” is one that comes with great, near insurmountable expectations; and for many, Trainwreck has fallen short.
Though the show’s been on Comedy Central since 2013, Inside Amy Schumer is the root of most of Amy Schumer’s enormous success in this past year. Sketches like ‘Last Fuckable Day’ and ‘Football Town Nights’ have been among those to go viral, skewering the double standard of beauty standards for women in Hollywood and rape culture respectively. This, as well as her directorial work for ’12 Angry Men’ — a filmic parody in which Jeff Goldblum and others ruthlessly debate her good looks and satirise male judgment of female entertainers — earned Schumer a bunch of Emmy nominations, a Peabody, and a place on Time‘s coveted 100 Most Influential People list.
To cap this all off, there’s now Trainwreck: a largely autobiographical film which she not only stars in, but also wrote. In it, she plays Amy: a thirty-something writer at a men’s magazine called S’Nuff whose life is generally comprised of tequila, one-night stands, and caring for her father (Colin Quinn) — a somewhat unpleasant guy who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, and who taught her from a young age that monogamy was for suckers. Then, after accidentally falling for sports doctor Aaron Conners (played by Bill Hader), she comes to question some of these life choices.
Should she settle down and start an adorkable little family of nerds like her sister? Does she need to change her ways to have a healthy long-term relationship? What exactly is in store for all the girls out there unashamedly talking about fishing rogue condoms out of their vajays at midday baby showers?
Is There A Moral Here?
Much of the success of Schumer’s sketch work is in its political bite; her most popular clips have been rooted in complex issues, with laughs directed expertly at ideas or behaviours that oppress or disadvantage women in particular. Because of this, many have felt betrayed by Trainwreck. The inference that she must change who she is for love is inherently against the sex-positivism she stands for, and the laughs are consistently on Amy — as she finds her way back from Staten Island in a mini-skirt and heels, as she downs a box of wine in the cinema, and as she drunkenly goes eye-to-eye with an intimidating, gargantuan dick.
Calling out Schumer’s character for not being enough of a mess, Guy Rundle of Daily Review judged the film, “a sermon of the type puritan fathers once gave”. In The Guardian, Ryan Gilby declared it had “a view of society that would not be out of place in a church sermon or conservative manifesto. The only way for Amy to find happiness is to forgo her indiscriminate, hedonistic lifestyle and prove herself worthy of the love of this upstanding man.”
I’m not so convinced.
Opening on a childhood flashback and following up with an affable narration from Amy herself, Trainwreck is firmly told from her perspective and directs laughs at its leading lady in the same way you might rib a friend. Yeah, it would be better if she drank less, she could definitely be more considerate, but she’s a hell of a lot more fun than those high school friends you had who already have three babies and a mortgage.
This is incidentally the same view taken by the film’s leading man. As Aaron Connors, Hader takes a step back from his more animated personas on SNL, to play a (just as endearing) level-headed surgeon, and what’s been described by other critics as an “emotional bodyguard”. He’s the good guy. He wants the best for Amy, but still loves all her quirks and supposed flaws. Above all — he’s understanding. Though he once asks how many guys she’s slept with (when the topic comes up), he repeatedly assures her he doesn’t care. Amy’s behaviour isn’t challenged by this guy; the question of change come from her ostensibly genuine feelings for him, and the effect they have on her impression of monogamy itself.
Of course, Trainwreck isn’t without Schumer’s characteristic barbs and incisive set pieces. In fact, some could be standalone sketches from Inside Amy Schumer: guys around a barbecue arbitrarily cheer or moan about the names of sports players Aaron’s treated, Amy’s initial partner (WWE wrestler John Cena, who plays his part to perfection) tries dirty talk for the first time only to repeatedly yell about “PROTEIN”, pitches at the editorial meeting for her magazine include “Ugliest Celebrity Kids Under Six” and “You’re Not Gay, She’s Boring”. The targets are clear and the jokes all hit home.
But, the character development and overarching plot of the film aren’t intended to be distilled to a single message in the same way as these individual scenes or the exhaustively analysed viral comedy Schumer’s known for. The narrative has its questionable moments — including, but not limited to, a confident and openly sexual woman telling her comparatively conservative sister “I’m broken” — but it’s not sinister.
It’s messy and personal and real, and that’s exactly what makes it great.
Bringing Out The Comedy In Romantic Comedy
The formula to a commercially successful rom-com hasn’t changed much over the years, but there are now standalone breeds we’ve come to expect. There’s the Meg Ryan: where happenstance (/FATE) brings together two unlikely dorks in the big city. The Hugh Grant: where a giant bumbling fringe lusts after the first cardboard cutout of a brunette woman he passes with sideways glances and incessant apologies. The Katherine Heigl: where any vaguely successful or self-assured women is petrified of dying single and alone. And the Matthew McConaughey: where something something abs something flirty games something J-Lo.
These films are all certainly Romantic — in the chardonnay-gulping, eating straight from a 1L tub of icecream sense of the word — but the conventions they depend on have tipped past cliche and regularly leave audiences (who aren’t watching it for ironic self-indulgence) totally underwhelmed. Even Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd’s spoof of all this, They Came Together, fell relatively flat last year.
Instead of shying away from the genre completely, other films have instead tried to reinvent it from within. Though still depending on its own breed of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl Romance, (500) Days Of Summer played with the idea of resolutions — self-consciously declaring itself “not a love story”, but instead “a story about love”. Similarly, Rashida Jones’ Celeste and Jesse Forever started her story at the end of a relationship, instead choosing to give consistent focus to the relatable and fresh emotional journey of the female lead.
When these films do end with a happy couple, it’s through totally unconventional means. In Jenny Slate’s Obvious Child, the meet cute involved a drunken fart in the face and was followed up with an accidental pregnancy and consequent abortion — a welcome change from Judd Apatow’s (already unorthodox) 2007 film Knocked Up.
In Trainwreck — which Apatow also directed — the difference comes from the characters instead of the storyline. As both leads are plucked straight from sketch comedy, the (consistently great) jokes cut through the danger of sappy sentimentality and their similar comedic sensibilities lead to an on-screen relationship that’s rich and full of genuine affection rather than stiff cues and cutouts from the genre. It’s the same friendly banter, dumb jokes, and drunken nights that might have led to real relationships in your own life.
Much of this also comes from Schumer’s generous screenplay (though at two hours long, it’s definitely overcooked). The semi-autobiographical story sketches her Fun Party Girl as an authentic and complex person — one who also has thorny family issues which aren’t simply complementary to a romantic narrative, but affecting and compelling in their own right. The scenes both with and about her father are some of the film’s best, and also give her new relationship real context and emotional stakes. Or, at least more than the genre’s previous offerings.
Of course, Schumer being Schumer, there are knowing subversions as well. Her character’s unapologetic love of sex, drinking, and often just being an outright asshole, is a domain usually reserved for the Fun Friend or Soon-To-Be-Changed Leading Man — McConaughey is so close to this in How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days he even works at a men’s magazine. But in Trainwreck, Amy proudly owns it in a world of overtly sentimental Alpha males like John Cena, who pines for more from his relationship with her, and LeBron James (hilariously playing himself) who looks out for his friends, probes for relationship goss, and watches Downton Abbey.
She may grow and change along the way, but by the end of the film, Amy’s still this same ridiculous person — the kind of fresh, hilarious mess you love to laugh with, and now might actually end up caring about.
Trainwreck is in cinemas now.