Movie Review: Trainwreck
By Ben Gruchow
July 20, 2015

I can't believe anyone would actually buy us as a couple!

Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck is a movie that lives entirely in the moment. It consists of scenes and characters that change goals and dreams and traits depending on whether or not the scriptwriters wanted the moment to be raucous, sweet, dramatic, or sarcastic. It does not navigate these changes with much skill; by the time it arrives at its final set piece, the film has gone through so many tonal switches and undeveloped story threads that nothing really matters all that much. This is a messy, shapeless lump of a film; it’s hard to tell what the players behind the camera (Apatow directs, Amy Schumer writes and stars) were attempting to tell us, but I have a distressing feeling that the nugget of the movie’s pitch was developed without the right conclusion.

Let’s explore what works: As Amy Townsend, a single woman writing for a men’s magazine in New York, Schumer is a good comedian. Her instincts for timing and intonation are spot-on; her style of comedy may not agree with you, but it’s hard to deny that she’s good at what she does. She is good in Trainwreck by the measure of executing each scene’s individual requirements with feeling and energy; in the movie’s best line delivery, she describes a method of prophylaxis removal that I doubt would appear on any official instructions. She’s good in smaller moments, too: I liked when Amy uses a 3D model of herself during a treadmill demonstration (she’s assigned a piece about sports doctor Aaron Connors) to create some amusing interpretations of walking and jogging. A moment when she realizes the contents of a vial of white powder displays that good comedy depends on subtlety just as much as drama does.

Schumer has a natural presence. The character of Aaron Connors is played by Bill Hader, and he sells us on the legitimacy of his profession. The first meeting between the characters comes about 15 minutes into the film, after we’ve established Amy’s work life, her active sex life, and her social circle. The character of Amy is funny, competent, independent; she perhaps takes too much to heart her father’s words from early childhood (“Monogamy isn’t realistic!”), but she emerges in the early going as the central figure in an atypical and interesting look at contemporary female sexuality - one with a very hard-R sensibility.

Her biggest problem as we start out is the group of people she works with: they are venal, unpleasant characters; Vanessa Bayer’s Nikki, as her friend and coworker, would be a liability for anyone professing to have a healthy social support structure. They also serve as an early warning, for us in the audience: none of these people are developed beyond the level of a one-off TV sketch. Even the great Tilda Swinton, as chief editor Dianna, can’t do much with the material; she knocks each of her line readings out of the park as a casually dismissive misanthrope - but there’s no sense of dimensionality or personhood to her. She’s a delivery system for a punchline; to exacerbate the issue, a solid 80 percent of her screen time can be seen in the trailers for the movie.

Then we meet Hader’s character, and the movie jumps to them having dinner, then ahead, and ahead, and ahead; Trainwreck begins to shift its gears into “romantic comedy” and starts to go off the rails almost immediately. There’s little reason for Schumer to take much of an interest in Hader; there’s even less reason for Hader to take interest in Schumer. The movie certainly doesn’t think so; it loses focus on her existing nature with alarming rapidity, and repositions her as that ancient cinematic creature that wasn’t part of the narrative (and, really, isn’t very welcome): the broken soul who needs to be fixed through a Special Someone.

There’s a bigger problem, though: Hader and Schumer have no rhythm or comfort together, and little chemistry overall. There’s a hint of it at the end of the movie, in the way that you have a sort of chemistry with a neighbor who’s always parking in front of your house. The disconnect between their meeting and the first pronouncement of love is truly pretty staggering. Let’s draw a rough comparison: Bridesmaids is a film with a similar arc and incident. The love story in Trainwreck proceeds as if we had seen the Kristen Wiig character meet Chris O’Dowd’s police officer, then watched them hang out in the convenience-store parking lot, and then the next time we see them it’s the end of the movie and they’re an item. The difference is that Bridesmaids takes time to depict the relationship growing from neutrality to respect to affection, and Trainwreck appears to expect us to make the leap on spec.

Even setting this aside, though, Bridesmaids is a comparison that illustrates the concept being executed with sympathy and consistency and rhythm. It gets away with being familiar storytelling territory because we buy into the personalities and natures of Wiig’s and O’Dowd’s characters, and the things they do make sense. Every time Schumer and Hader appear in the context of being a couple, both of them look uncomfortable. Even more problematic, we can’t square the behavior in the current scene with any personality displayed in a past scene.

There’s a sequence that abuses this liability, to the point of just about turning the rest of the film sour: the two characters get into a fight because Amy wasn’t in the room to support Aaron during an awards ceremony; she wasn’t in the room because she was put in a circumstance where her career depended on her being on the phone. We saw this and know it, and she explains it - and yet it the movie appears to use this incident as an indictment against Amy’s character. Put bluntly: The movie implicates a decision by Amy to show dedication to her work as a deficiency of her character, in the face of supporting her boyfriend at his awards ceremony. There’s no observation here, no spin, no wrinkle in the formula. The movie isn’t even making a claim for balance: the scene is played straight. It’s bizarrely retrograde and unpleasant, and the unquestionable low point of a film that’s already throwing well under the level of ambition we expect, given the level of talent in front of and behind the camera.

There are other things in my notes that merit observation: the flabbiness of the editing and the tendency to let scenes and moments spin out past their optimal conclusion, the fact that every actor apart from Schumer and Hader is basically playing themselves, the shallow feints toward psychological depth and inner conflict that come out of nowhere and lead into nowhere. All of these are in service to the larger flaw, though: this is a film with no discipline, one that seemingly lacks the courage to follow through on an intriguing premise and devolves into an absolutely standard rom-com in its second half - albeit one with a higher-than-expected percentage of implausibly choreographed cheerleader routines.