“I’m broken,” Amy (Amy Schumer) admits to Aaron (Bill Hader) towards the end of Trainwreck.
How much you care about that admission pretty much determines how patient you’ll be with the rest of the film. Outwardly, Trainwreck is a comedy. But at its heart it is a painful story about a woman who hates herself so deeply that she can’t even imagine an alternative to a life of numbing, palliative drugs and sex. “What’s wrong with you that you want to be with me?” she asks.
Directed by Judd Apatow from a script by Schumer, Trainwreck is closer to The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up than Funny People and This is 40—like the earlier movies, this one is strangely optimistic, with characters in a state of arrested development who begin to voluntarily stumble toward adulthood as best they can. In Trainwreck, though, it’s the woman who is the overgrown adolescent, and then man who’s mature and responsible.
In the film’s prologue flashback, Amy’s dad explains to her (nine year-old self) and her sister Kim why the parents are splitting up. (It’s because of his affairs, but he uses an extended metaphor about playing with dolls that casts the blame on mom for being a mean grown-up.) After the credits, we get introduced to grown-up Amy, who writes for S’nuff Magazine and juggles an insane boss (Tilda Swinton) who makes her write ridiculous Cosmo-style pieces with hot takes on tawdry topics, a perpetually aggrieved sister who can’t imagine why Amy won’t pretend to like her too precocious step-son, and a sullen father who hoards his meds at the only care facility the daughters can afford to pay for.
The Apatow brand is marked by deftly mixing farce and emotional realism. Characters are exaggerated and satirical, but these films eventually settle in and score points by making pointed, painful observations about the consequences of living in a sex-crazed world.
Trainwreck doesn’t quite join these two threads as seamlessly as some of Apatow’s other work; at times it feels like two different movies. Certain stand-alone scenes—such as Aaron playing one-on-one with LeBron James—are tremendously funny but also feel a bit too much like sketch comedy. Most of the first half of the film is in that mode. Each scene is the set up for a joke.
But then, mercifully, Trainwreck gets around to telling its story and things get a little more serious. Amy starts to date one of the subjects—a surgeon who operates on celebrity athletes. Can she do normal? Does she even want to?
I never quite believed or bought that Aaron was “crazy” about Amy. She interviews him, revealing her ignorance of all things sports. They have a meal, she initiates sex, and then she is surprised when he calls her the next day. Suddenly we are told (through voice-over and montage) that they fell hard for each other, and the story fast forwards to the stage in their relationship where Aaron’s patience and tolerance is explained by his already being in love, but we never really figure out how he got there. Hader makes some good acting choices, and I get that the heart wants what the heart wants.
Still, the film seems more interested in how Amy matures through the relationship than developing the story of the relationship itself, and given how much the relationship matters to helping Amy finally grow up, this isn’t a small problem. Part of the genius of Knocked Up was that the pregnancy helped explain how and why the couple got (and stayed) together long enough for Seth Rogen’s character to see why adulthood might be okay. Trainwreck’s story has a lot to recommend it, but I don’t think Schumer is as good a writer (yet) as Apatow or even Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement, Sex Tape).
But though they’re sometimes messy and always crude, these relationship comedies in the Apatow family tree are doing some interesting, valuable work in our culture. They depict sexual freedom as a joyless, addictive, (pardon my language) crappy substitute for domestic love—in fact, Trainwreck feels a little like a strange comedy sibling of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Both films depict anonymous, uncommitted sex as far more shabby and sad than erotic. If Trainwreck frosts its cake with a you-have-to-laugh-or-you-would-be-crying-all-the-time icing, you can still taste that sadness in nearly every bite.
Amy also buys herself a lot of patience by refusing to lay the blame for everything wrong with her life at her parents’ feet. That her sister Kim has managed to carve out and cling to some semblance of domestic happiness is both a source of hope and deep pain for Amy. At the heart of the film is what I can only assume to be a depressingly familiar conundrum for young women: you can conform to what society wants you to be and risk loathing yourself, or you can pursue what your heart tells you is good and risk scorn and ridicule.
It’s hard to risk being rejected and choose to pursue something good—maturity and a relationship—when your peers pressure you to be like everyone else. It’s got to be even harder when your conscience convicts you, whispering that happiness, wholeness, respect, and love are for other people who have made better choices than you. In one exhilarating, tragic moment in Trainwreck, Amy tells Aaron to “go be with that kind of girl.” That’s exhilarating, because it shows that Amy is beginning to understand that being happy means trying to be a better version of herself, rather than some unattainable cultural stereotype. But it’s tragic, because many of us are so scared and broken and lonely that even if we are fortunate enough to find someone willing to love us as we are, it’s still incredibly hard work to let them.
Amy has sex with four different men, including one minor, in the movie, although she only completes the act with three. In a separate montage, she admits to having sex with another half dozen or so others. She confesses to Aaron at one point that she either does not remember or can’t count her lifetime number of male sex partners, but she does say in passing that she has slept with three other women. There is a smattering of male nudity. We get the backside of her body-builder boyfriend, and he is also so with only a towel draped over his erect penis. Amy’s editor shows her pictures (presumably Photoshopped) of Aaron, clothed, in a locker room shower with several nude models/athletes. In one sexual encounter, Amy describes the techniques that she likes for oral sex. She drinks to the point of blacking out or losing her memory, waking up in one strange bedroom and asking her putative sex partner, “Where am I?” She smokes marijuana several times and samples a stashed powder she finds among her father’s property, declaring unconvincingly to her sister that it is not cocaine. One of her lovers snorts two lines of powder off her forehead during foreplay, but he claims it is Adderall. The language is, not surprisingly, guttural. I didn’t catalog all the crass talk, since I can’t imagine the viewer for whom that is a deal breaker but who would still be considering the movie based on the rest of the description.
Kenneth R. Morefield (@kenmorefield) is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I, II, & III, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.