Film

The Taming of Amy Schumer: ‘Trainwreck’ Has Laughs, but at What Cost?

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The problem with clamoring for more woman-led comedies is that actual comedy may be the thing that ends up being left by the wayside. Tina Fey, among others, has railed against the boneheaded dictum that women can’t be funny. (Try telling that to Gracie Allen, or to the recently departed Anne Meara, to name just two.) But in the current climate of watchfulness — one in which every joke must be constructed and sealed drum-tight so as not to offend anyone, at any time — it’s not enough for a woman just to be funny. Women comics must also be spokespeople: for feminism, for all women, for anyone who might be perceived as oppressed or marginalized in any way. When you look at it that way, being funny is the unfunniest job in the world.

Amy Schumer is making her way ably to the top of this shaky ladder. The subjects she tackles on her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer, are the antithesis of boys’-club humor: In one sketch, she’s a video-game newbie who takes the controls of a Call of Duty–like shooter from her boyfriend and stumbles into an all-too-realistic military rape scenario. Schumer can be lacerating. She’s also sometimes more likely to leave your jaw hanging open than to make you laugh, which is one of the downsides of comedy that’s crafted to make a point: There’s often something lecture-y about it, as if we’re being made to atone for years of laughing at plain old dumb stuff. That’s the price we pay when we wish — as we all do — for smart comedy, and Trainwreck, if nothing else, strives to be smart.

Trainwreck is Schumer’s first starring movie role; she also wrote the script. And while the picture is occasionally very funny — because when she lets loose, Schumer does have a fantastic, loosey-goosey wiliness — it also feels carefully constructed to make its points, chief among them that men can get away with all kinds of bad or crazy behavior that women can’t. That by itself could be entertaining, if the movie just ran with it. But there’s a much bigger, more insidious problem with Trainwreck: Schumer may be the writer and star, but Judd Apatow is the director, and in the end, you can’t escape the feeling that somehow Schumer’s vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies, even the best ones, follow: one in which the comforts of conventional partnerships and family life are what we should all aspire to, even though we may pretend to be interested in tawdry things like casual sex and excessive partying. Apatow and Schumer probably believe they’ve made a feminist picture, but the reality is something different. This is a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.

Schumer plays Amy, a writer at a slick lads’ magazine in New York. (Tilda Swinton, in a rare comic role, is killer as the ruthless editor-in-chief — she’s like a lamprey’s mouth perched on long, long legs.) Amy is determinedly uncommitted and noncommittal; her parents’ marital breakup, years before, led her to doubt whether monogamy is even possible. She favors one-night stands, and has lots of them, though there is one monosyllabic, musclebound dude (John Cena) she sees more frequently than the rest — somehow he believes they’re exclusive and is crestfallen to discover his mistake. The sequence in which he comes to this realization is played partly for laughs, but we can see it makes Amy think, as if she’s getting an inkling that her cluelessness about the feelings of others might amount to a kind of cruelty.

Apatow and Schumer probably believe they’ve made a feminist picture.

Amy also drinks too much, and sometimes she wakes up uncertain how she found her way between any given set of sheets: One particular bleary morning, she opens her eyes and, spotting a Scarface poster on the wall, utters a quiet prayer: “Please don’t be a dorm room.” Between assignations, assorted life issues intervene: Amy has to navigate an affectionate but sometimes strained relationship with her sister (Brie Larson), while the foul-mouthed, racist father she adores (Colin Quinn) is in ill health and has had to go into assisted living. Amy could probably just keep sleeping with random guys forever, but in the line of duty she meets a sweet, successful, super-nerdy orthopedic surgeon, Bill Hader’s Aaron, who’s unlike anyone she’s ever known. She falls for him, irrationally and almost immediately. And because she doesn’t see herself as the type who could settle down with just one person, she proceeds to make his life miserable.

The start of Trainwreck is promising. We think we’re getting a movie where a woman gets to enjoy the company of lots of partners, without remorse or shame, the sort of freedom men — some of them, at least — have enjoyed for centuries. But the trouble signs show up early: We have no idea why Amy is attracted to one guy or another, even just for a night. Before she meets Aaron, she doesn’t even seem to enjoy the sex we see her having — we’re simply supposed to assume she does because there’s lots of it, and because she favors really short skirts and low-cut blouses (not that she doesn’t look good in them). There’s nothing sensuous about Amy. She tackles her sex life with grim determination, and her lack of engagement — emotional or sexual — exposes a sneaky and unpleasant thread of conservatism in Trainwreck: The movie wants us to buy the idea that sex really is best with your One True Love, and anything outside that is just a cheap substitute.

Meanwhile, there’s lots of lewd, ribald humor — some of it pretty effective — to throw us off the trail of the movie’s squareness. There are jokes about bloody tampons floating, unflushed and forlorn, in the toilet bowl. There are gags about the ultra-relaxing powers of cunnilingus, and about trying (in vain) to get a guy to talk dirty. There’s a montage of Amy and Aaron doing embarrassing, kissy-face stuff all across Manhattan, narrated by a mortified Amy in voiceover. Some of the actors, too, seem to belong in a much hipper movie. Hader is a charming leading man — his goofy smile is vaguely reminiscent of Wallace Shawn’s, and it’s sexy as hell, a surprisingly potent secret weapon. LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire show up, in small roles, as themselves: James, in particular, hams it up and has a blast — he’s a kick to watch.

Schumer has the harder job shouldering the film, and there’s no doubt she’s game. She looks like a cross between an angel on a Victorian greeting card and a Campbell’s Soup Kid, an unholy alliance that promises the right kind of trouble. But her character in Trainwreck is at times so badly behaved — toward a man she supposedly loves — that it’s hard to be on her side. We shouldn’t have to approve of characters’ behavior; in comedy, especially, it’s more fun if we don’t. Still, we have to be mostly sympathetic to Amy for the movie to work, and if I were Aaron, I’d run a mile from her. That he bends over backward to accommodate her doesn’t make her seem admirable or smart or modern, or even just interesting: Anyone, man or woman, can be an emotional bully. And in the end, it’s supposed to be a triumph that Amy is won over to the wonders of monogamy.

In the movie’s terms, we know she’ll never miss any of those other guys, because she never had much invested in them anyway. Trainwreck pretends to be frank about sex from a woman’s point of view, yet it refuses to reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is. A retreat into the safety of couplehood is the only possible future it can imagine, the necessary corrective to sleeping around. In its too-tidy universe, good girls don’t. And bad girls probably shouldn’t, either.

Trainwreck

Directed by Judd Apatow

Universal Pictures

Opens July 17

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