A funny thing appears to have happened regarding writer-producer-director Judd Apatow’s relative fame. A few years’ back he was publicly receiving most of the credit for movies such as Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall where he was merely a producer, yet now most of the focus for his latest film is centred on its debutant star, with Apatow’s name not even listed on the poster (he’s now been relegated to “the guy who brought you Bridesmaids”, a dubious claim at best that Paul Feig’s likely more deserving of).
Said star is one Amy Schumer, who also wrote the screenplay. Hers is a name that would have been unfamiliar to me a few months back. She’s primarily known for her sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, which I saw some of in the build-up to Trainwreck’s release. Like all sketch shows it’s a but hit-and-miss but she’s obviously a talent – her episode-length 12 Angry Men parody is one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year.
It definitely seems like a good idea for Apatow to team-up with a different writer after his last two movies fell so heavily into self-indulgence, yet Schumer’s comedy stylings are actually quite similar to his own, albeit from a much-needed female perspective, with an emphasis on raunchy dialogue punctuating a more traditionally sweet romantic story.
The premise for Trainwreck is otherwise a fairly-standard rom-com set-up, though undoubtedly one we’re more used to seeing with the roles-reversed. Schumer plays a young woman (also called Amy) who appears to maintain a decent job at a New York magazine, but she drinks a lot, sleeps around and appears unable to maintain a stable relationship.
There is a good deal of very funny exchanges littered throughout the movie’s first half, in particular the pitch meetings at the magazine where Amy works. Her co-workers are a small group of recognizable actors and they all get a handful of great lines, some of which are what leads to Amy being given the assignment that kicks off Trainwreck’s primary plotline. She’s sent to interview Dr. Aaron Conners (Apatow regular Bill Hader) a sports doctor to some of the city’s top athletes, despite her having next-to-zero interest in sports.
So naturally, they hit it off, and their relationship proceeds in a fairly typical fashion, aided by the winning performances of the leads (I’m beginning to think Hader is one of America’s more underrated current comic performers). That said their connection works on screen through the ups-and-downs, there’s an honesty to it that feels more realistic and less contrived than a lot of movies this could be compared with. Amy also has an unusually well-written relationship with her sister (Brie Larson) who appears from time-to-time.
While Trainwreck represents some expansion for Apatow, and is something of a return to form following the out-of-touch This Is 40, it’s a shame that he still hasn’t got over him most famous weaknesses. Firstly, a reliance on celebrity cameos. I always found it a glaring moment in Knocked Up when Steve Carell – star of Apatow’s previous movie The 40-Year Old Virgin – briefly appeared as himself. There was no reason for him to be there and it came across as indulgent and distracting, in part due to those two films sharing many cast members.
Trainwreck again continues this off-putting trend of having recognizable celebrities playing themselves interacting with ones playing fictional characters. Dr Connors’ primary client here is basketball star LeBron James, with whom he also shares a friendship. Now there’s nothing especially wrong with James’ acting, but there’s also no reason whatsoever for his character to be him. He could just have easily been a fictional athlete played by an actor, and at worst it comes across as just Apatow showing off all the celebrity friends he now has. This reaches its unfortunate nadir when some other friends (clients?) of Connors’ later show-up, including Tennis star Chris Evert and Matthew Broderick. There’s nothing added by cameos like these, they’re not cleverly playing upon or subverting established personas, they could honestly just be working actors – a fact confirmed by a third friend being played by a sports caster I’d personally never heard of.
In an ironic twist, the two funniest extended cameos in the film come from actors who aren’t playing themselves – a hilarious and chameleonic Tilda Swinton as Amy’s boss, and most surprisingly of all, wrestler John Cena as her initial boyfriend. Cena actually shares two of the film’s funniest scenes with her, a tremendously uncomfortable sex scene and a later argument in a cinema. As memorable as those are, you still might have to remind yourself afterwards that Cena actually wasn’t supposed to be playing himself, particularly if like me, you knew who he was going in but have little familiarity with any basketball players.
Apatow’s primary issue though, is that he’s never seemed to know just how long his movies should ideally be. As a general rule, I think it’s fair to say that romantic comedies shouldn’t run for 2 hours plus, yet every one of his does. This isn’t on the scale of Funny People but I think he could have easily cut 20-25 minutes out of Trainwreck and produced a superior film – an opening flashback scene and some of the celebrity stuff could have been the first to go.
However, despite the fact that I think there’s a better movie in Trainwreck than the one we’ve got, it’s still a pretty good one. It delivers the laughs on a solid basis yet also is able to splice in more dramatic moments – there’s a passionate speech Amy gives at a funeral that very affecting, something truly impressive to pull off in tandem with the lewder material. Most of all, Amy’s a believable character of the type we’ve rarely seen leading a big studio comedy, and her relationship with Connors convinces. It’s still early days for Schumer, she might need a little refinement but is clearly a talent to watch. Trainwreck’s a good start, but I believe for her, the best is yet to come.