Train in Vain – a review of Trainwreck

Amy Schumer reverses gender role stereotypes in entertaining and thoughtful film

Written by and starring comedian Amy Schumer, "Trainwreck" opened in theatres on July 17, 2015
Written by and starring comedian Amy Schumer, Trainwreck opened in theatres on July 17, 2015

If you didn’t know who Amy Schumer was last week, then you do by now. The breakout comedian — who achieved huge viral success with her strikingly on-point sketch comedy/stand-up series Inside Amy Schumer — wrote and stars in Trainwreck, which opened this past weekend to a very respectable $30 million at the box office.

Schumer has effectively replaced Jennifer Lawrence as the media’s cool new girlfriend (there’s only room for one of those!). Her own experiences as an atypical blonde in Hollywood, the liberation of no longer being sexually desirable as a woman of a certain age, and the prominence of boy bands are all distilled through her self-deprecating and near-absurdist style. See her breathless appearance on Ellen for a crash course.

Directed by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), Trainwreck may appear gimmicky in its slightly misleading posters: the “funny feminist” smokes and drinks and sleeps around and doesn’t feel bad about it!

But it’s time to see the gender roles reversed. How many films have we sat through featuring a man in her position? If Trainwreck were made a decade ago, we would be watching Ashton Kutcher (or worse) wipe the streets of Manhattan with a parade of aspiring starlets. That this is even still an angle is telling — but there’s more to this film than meets the eye.

Amy Schumer as Amy and Bill Hader as her extremely likable boyfriend Aaron
Amy Schumer as Amy and Bill Hader as her extremely likable boyfriend Aaron
Comparisons of Schumer to Kim Catrell’s Samantha Jones are inevitable but superficial. Both may be “promiscuous and successful women living in New York,” but Schumer’s creation owes a bigger debt to Diablo Cody’s transcendent Young Adult. Although Trainwreck is evidently somewhat autobiographical (Schumer’s character is also named Amy), it grants its protagonist a predictably happy ending (as opposed to Charlize Theron depicting a full-on case study in mental health issues).

That said, it’s a nice palate cleanser after the obnoxious campaign for the Entourage movie no one asked for (which has just barely recovered its budget) — itself based upon a series deemed a man’s answer to Sex and the City (finally!).

Trainwreck may use a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy narrative structure, but it never shies away from the duality of relationships. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all refreshingly presented. From the thrill-turned-revulsion of a one-night-stand to Amy’s competitive yet playful relationship with her sister or the moving scenes shared with her ill father (who has clearly cast Amy in his own image), Schumer’s script is shockingly adroit.

Shocking in the sense that, although Schumer has already been minted a near-master at observing foibles, a two-hour feature film is considerably more difficult to execute than a chain of episodic sketches — as the Sex and the City and Entourage films have both so aptly demonstrated.

Her new-found romance with nerdy and sensitive Aaron moves quickly and uncomfortably for the commitment-phobic Amy
Her new-found romance with nerdy and sensitive Aaron moves quickly and uncomfortably for the commitment-phobic Amy
The film begins with a situation that punctuates much of the story: bad meaningless sex, played for laughs. From there, we are firmly in Amy’s world — and it’s one you won’t want to leave. Apatow’s sense of pace is unerring, mixing the fast and furious punchlines (too many quotables to mention here) with the more intimate moments that wait for just the right time to emerge.

This is largely explored through Amy’s burgeoning relationship with nerdy Aaron (Bill Hader, extremely likable), a doctor specializing in sports rehabilitation who Amy is trying to write a sensationalist article on. Her boss, Dianna, is played by an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, who’s clearly having a great time as a peroxide shark from publishing hell.

Amy and Aaron’s new-found romance moves quickly and uncomfortably for the commitment-phobic Amy. Reluctant to give up her potentially self-destructive ways, Amy distances herself from Aaron while he seeks slapstick advice from his all-star friend (Lebron James as himself).

Lebron James stars as himself, an all-star friend providing slapstick advice to Aaron in his relationship with Amy
Lebron James stars as himself, an all-star friend providing slapstick advice to Aaron in his relationship with Amy
This cat-and-mouse game is initially amusing, before venturing into darker territory and flirting with the theory that many contemporary studies showed: the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s human connection. Though this is presented in a gentle manner and crucially does not seek to teach its heroine a demeaning lesson — the fate usually reserved for strong women in cinema, no matter how good or evil they are.

It’s this sense of self that makes Trainwreck such an entertaining and thoughtful film. It depicts a world seen many times on celluloid — but now we can watch a woman have her cake and eat it too.

But with Schumer’s meteoric rise comes the inevitable backlash. Despite the broad strides she’s making for women in comedy, Schumer’s writing has been labelled as “racist” and her feminism “token.”

Whether you agree or not, at least Schumer’s material is all her own. If you label Schumer as a “fake feminist”, then you’d better stop loving Beyonce: armography in front of a video screen strobing the new “F” word does not an activist make.

Tilda Swinton is unrecognizable as Amy's boss Diana
Tilda Swinton is unrecognizable as Amy’s boss Diana
That we live in an age where a comedian should have to explain that she isn’t genuinely racist is, frankly, pathetic. By their very definition, satire and comedy shine a light on things that no one wants to talk about. How can you help strip oppressive things of their power? By knocking them off of their pedestals and reversing the power structure. Hannibal Buress working Bill Cosby into a routine comes to mind.

As so much of social media lives in a state of constant pearl-clutching, it silences many would-be allies who now self-police for fear of offending those around them. And what could be more counter-productive than silence?

As social and sexual equality slowly progresses, so too do their detractors — largely from within the communities they purport to represent. To certain circles, no progress is ever enough and one step forward is in fact two steps back. Obviously, there’s a long way to go for many communities, but it’s important to acknowledge victories when they happen — rather than simply labelling them as being “not good enough.”

Victories don’t happen overnight. The ability for anyone to truly be themselves is almost upon Western society. Are we there yet? Of course not. But that films like this can be made and be good and successful shows that this train — slow as it is — is on the right track.

All photos courtesy of Universal Studios.

Trainwreck Trailer

Amy Schumer on Ellen

“Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup” – Inside Amy Schumer