For a genre supposedly aimed at women, a genre women more or less have to themselves, the rom-com is not a genre that has traditionally treated its female characters very well. It’s one of the reasons why comedies like Bridesmaids are so warmly received – it treats women like they’re women, not people to be shoved into straight gender-swapped action roles or aspirational figures designed to send a definitive message about what it means to be female in the world.
On this level, Trainwreck – Amy Schumer’s first foray onto the big screen – is pretty wonderful. Schumer has written a well-rounded, flawed, simultaneously repulsive and loveable character to play, and that in itself is a victory.
Amy starts the films as a boozy, promiscuous commitment-phobe, enjoying sex and partying past the point where society deems it acceptable. The picture she paints for us in voiceover is a great one – she has an awesome writing job, lots of sex and nothing tying her down. The reality, as it takes the film all of ten minutes to show, is that her lifestyle is not one she’s chosen because it’s what she wants, but because she doesn’t know how to do anything else.
That’s our set-up for the character’s arc, as an unsuitable writing assignment leads her to bumbling sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader). They meet, they connect, but when things progress and Bill assumes they should just start dating, Amy is alarmed. It’s goes against everything the cynical view of romance would tell us, and Trainwreck is in many ways a quest for the return of that lost earnestness.
Running alongside the main love story are Amy’s relationships with her sister and father. Kim (Brie Larson) has gone the opposite way to Amy, settling down with a ‘boring’ husband and step-son despite their father’s speech to them as children. Monogamy isn’t realistic, he told them, and it’s the daughter’s strained relationship with their father (Colin Quinn) that produces the film’s best and most memorable moments.
It helps tremendously that Schumer is as good a dramatic actress as she is a comedian, because the film might not have worked nearly as well otherwise. The moments in which the character finally lets her guard down, allowing life and its inherent pain to intrude, are some of the best of the film, and that’s down to her on-screen presence as much as her talent off-screen.
Hader is equally disarmingly compelling, with Aaron coming off like an updated Hugh Grant type, lost in a phase of the genre that has no time for his naive sincerity. Despite there being no doubt that Trainwreck is Schumer’s film, brief scenes between Aaron and LeBron James (playing himself to hilarious effect) are the funniest parts of an otherwise comedically hit or miss film.
With two strong halves of a love story that would otherwise feel pretty familiar, it becomes something you can safely invest in, as human and recognisable as it is.
The workplace stuff is more formulaic and therefore less memorable despite an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton, Vanessa Bayer and Ezra Miller all doing good work. Swinton’s character is one joke reliant on our collective experience with the actress, though fans of Miller will probably get a kick out of seeing him play against type for much of the movie.
But in the end, Trainwreck falls into the status quo and, when boiled way down, it is one in which the protagonist is taught the error of her ways after meeting a man. It gets points for introducing strong elements beyond said man to get to this point, but that doesn’t make its conclusion any less disappointing.
There’s a tendency to declare a film progressive and genre-bending simply because it dares to star and be written by a woman in the industry – Schumer’s stardom has appeared sudden and somewhat accidental from the outside, but it’s time to admit that she’s here for a reason, and Trainwreck is a good indication as to why.
But unlike Bridesmaids, which was an ensemble comedy before it was anything else, Trainwreck is unapologetic about being a romantic-comedy. We start with a single character and we end with a couple. There are laughs in the middle. To deny that it is a romantic-comedy in the most traditional sense is to rob it of its joy.
But that’s its position – audiences need this film to be more than average, more than funny, more than typical. The reaction to it has been much like the world’s reaction to Schumer herself. Greater meaning is asked of her, a feminist message, an eye to ultimate inclusivity.
Many will be able to find those things in Trainwreck, and have, but others will see a film with no grand aspirations to be anything other than exactly what it is. And that’s fine too.
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