Comedian Amy Schumer has seen her star rise as fast as anyone in the history of American comedy. Having moved swiftly from the ranks of small-time stand-up to runner up in a pair of televised comedy contests, she hit it big with her show Inside Amy Schumer, a mainstay of Comedy Central.
Inside Amy Schumer is a remarkable show, one that has not only proven to be consistently hilarious—already as great and strange a series as Monty Python, SNL of the 1970s, Kids in the Hall, and Key & Peele—but it is an often profoundly surprising program that exposes this country’s misogynistic underbelly like no other show, I would argue, in television history.
Director: Judd Apatow
Writer: Amy Schumer
Producers: Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel
Cinematographer: Jody Lee Lipes
Editors: William Kerr, Peck Prior, Paul Zucker
Music: Jon Brion
Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn, Norman Lloyd, Vanessa Bayer, Dave Attell
Premiere: March 16, 2015 - SXSW
US Theatrical Release: July 17, 2015
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
Consider Episode Three from the current (Third) season, “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” one episode devoted to a single skit, in black and white, a parody of Sidney Lumet’s 1957 classic 12 Angry Men. Here, however, twelve male actors, ranging from Paul Giamatti to Dennis Quaid to Jeff Goldblum, debate if “Amy Schumer is not hot enough to be on television.”
This question not only leads to some obvious, though funny, bits, but it proved to be a fascinating examination of just what it is we expect from women as actors, and probes, not unsympathetically (but also with razor-sharp insight), men’s obsession with the idealized female body. Schumer, who co-directed and wrote the script, peoples this jury room with a dozen men of varying degrees of attractiveness. And yet, of course, there is no question that Paul Giamatti could be a leading man, despite the fact that he is certainly less appealing to the eye than Schumer, about whom we’re having this (often hilarious) debate. In a very real sense, in this episode Schumer turned the Bechdel Test on its head—twelve men, talking about one woman. Brilliant.
“12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” is but one of the many, many superior skits that elevate Inside Amy Schumer above the usual fray and into the firmament. Over the last few months, as trailers for her new film Trainwreck began to surface, I had to wonder if, under the very masculine hand of Judd Apatow and a Hollywood typically very unkind to women (witness almost the entire career of Melissa McCarthy), would Schumer’s first starring vehicle be as bold as her show?
Sadly, the answer isn’t just “no,” it is, to borrow some of Schumer’s coarse language, “fuck no.” Trainwreck is a sad disaster. Actually, I take that back—the film works perfectly well as an expression of Apatow’s geeky white male fantasyland, with Bill Hader taking on the role of the normally corpulent Freaks and Geeks regulars winning over the cute girl and making her appreciate them for who they are without reciprocation. Schumer’s Amy in Trainwreck is a sexual dynamo and a heavy drinker very much like her television persona, without any of the fuck-off pride but all of the eventual shame and capitulation that is expected of a “wild” woman in conventional rom-coms.
As my wife, Janice, put it, “There is nothing in Trainwreck that needs Amy Schumer.” Which might be the most depressing, yet most accurate thing you can say about this movie.
Trainwreck opens somewhat promisingly. In grainy, supposed-to-be-the-80s film stock, we see Amy’s father telling his daughters that he and their mother are divorcing. He then proceeds to spin a hilarious parable, asking his daughters how they would like it if they had to play with only one single doll their whole lives, turning this lesson into a confession of his own philandering. He hammers the lesson home that “monogamy isn’t realistic.”
Cut to the present day, and Amy is pulling the clothes off a sexy, well-hung dude who helps her climax before she falls asleep. We then get a summary of her life: she works as a writer for a leading men’s magazine (humorously titled S’Nuff), sleeps with scores of strange and sexy men (each encounter is given a treatment as if it were a skit on her show, which is good enough), gets greeted every day by very happy homeless man named Noam (Dave Attell) who spins jokes and doesn’t have mental illness and appears well fed, and generally leads the very white, whimsical existence of a successful Manhattan woman.
There’s a staff meeting at S’Nuff, as the magazine’s top four writers kick around ideas. Actually, the only ideas kicked around are by the two men in the group, and the editor, a tall, bronzed woman named Dianna, a cruel and amazing creature played to perfection by Tilda Swinton. One of the ideas is a profile of a leading sports doctor in New York. Dianna likes it, but Schumer can’t keep her mouth shut, berating the story and the very idea of sports.
Oddly enough, Dianna likes Amy’s attitude and assigns it to her. To add worthless drama where it isn’t needed (and barely explored), Dianna confides that if Amy succeeds, she will be promoted.
Hidebound plot turns aside, what is also striking about this scene is also a problem with the entirety of Trainwreck, and I can’t believe I’m writing this—there is literally only one interesting female character, and that is Swinton’s Dianna. As we shall come to see, Amy, her sister Kim (Brie Larson), her friend at the magazine Nikki (Vanessa Bayer), and every single woman with a speaking part is either a dolt or a cliché, or, in the case of Amy, someone in need of rehabilitation.
From here, Schumer goes to meet Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader, essentially playing himself), with whom she will obviously fall in love. Amy, ostensibly a writer at a major New York magazine, first approaches Aaron in his office, having done nothing to prepare herself for the interview. She pretends to know sports teams but doesn’t, then makes another very lame attempt at dismissing sports in general. Aaron will defend sports and later cheerleading, and Amy, along with the audience, will indeed see how great American professional sports can be for someone’s love-life and in general. Especially if they’re rich and white. These very lame and shallow debates further reveal Amy as weak: would that her character really dig into the nature of sports—I’m not talking a full-on examination of the nature of sports, but charge this dialogue by making it seem like she knows what she’s talking about, as opposed to just reacting.
Throughout Trainwreck, we are going to witness many instances of the audience’s being told how great or effective a character is, without any details supporting the claim. Amy is said to be a good writer, but doesn’t pitch any ideas at her magazine, nor prepares, nor has interesting questions, or even seems to read. Hader absolutely does not seem to be a doctor and seems not to even understand basic surgical procedure—for instance, the doctor plays Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” during surgery. This is a significant character trait. Since knee surgeries typically take hours, are we to assume the good doctor is looping this song dozens of times?
It’s noted frequently that Bill Hader’s Dr. Aaron is also a member of Doctors Without Borders. Seriously, just turn that over in your head for awhile.
Enter the subplot: Amy’s dad, Gordon (Colin Quinn), has MS and is living in an expensive senior home, so pricey it makes Amy’s sister text her repeatedly throughout the film that it is too expensive. I can’t remember the specific texts, but they amount to, “we need to move dad to a cheaper home!” and they happen often and serve only as cheap drama. Amy adores her dad and sees his side when it comes to relationships (“monogamy isn’t realistic”); her sister must, of course, be the total opposite, married to a dumpy man (Mike Birbiglia, also playing himself for all intents and purposes) with a dull son from a prior marriage. Ribboned through the romance of Aaron and Amy will be repeated visits to the old man, who is typically grouchy and profane, visits to Kim’s bland suburban home, conversations about marriage and being a mother (neither of which Amy wants for the moment but we know will soon embrace), and a baby shower so terrifically unfunny it’s a wonder Apatow had anything to do with it.
Scenes like the baby shower also reveal Apatow’s fear of Schumer’s extreme womanhood as seen on Inside Amy Schumer. Trainwreck’s Amy will tell a ribald tampon joke, but God forbid there should be any physical humor as might appear in one of Apatow’s male-driven comedies. Where director Paul Feig was not afraid to allow his actresses to belch and fart and race to the bathroom to attend to explosive vomit or diarrhea breaks in Bridesmaids (which was an Apatow production), Trainwreck is content to have a baby shower… that is a baby shower, with the usual dumb jokes about men and women in general, and then one awkward moment where five women, three of whom are great comedians (and one, Bridget Everett, is simply incredible), and all that is shared is a story about how Amy fished a condom from her vagina and Everett’s character was once involved in a threesome.
Inside Amy Schumer has literally plumbed the depths of Schumer’s own vagina (in a moment that was a nod to Almodovar’s Talk to Her?) but Trainwreck is absolutely terrified to go anywhere near that, which is a shame because if any film needed an explosive moment of humor, this one does.
Did I mention that the good doctor Aaron is also best pals with LeBron James, who essentially serves no purpose other than to try and get his doctor friend hooked up with Amy? New York Knicks basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire serves similarly. Would that there was a Bechdel Test for African-Americans. Note, too, that in the second half of the movie, the film exists almost entirely within Aaron’s professional world and the world of Amy’s family. For whatever reason, we’re denied seeing Amy’s professional life, except for brief moments where we’re shown that she’s not in charge of it or even very successful.
Spoilers approaching: Trainwreck rambles along, the relationship between Amy and Aaron grows, they argue because she’s paranoid about being in a good relationship with a dull man and he’s disturbed by her drinking and the number of men she’s slept with. This would all be well and good were it not for the fact that it slowly begins to dawn on you that Apatow and Schumer are going in the direction of a typical rom-com, meaning that the woman is going to roll over for her man. And that is exactly what happens.
The final third of Trainwreck is as bad as anything you’re going to see this year. Because either Schumer or Apatow are so insanely awestruck by celebrity, there is a bizarre scene, an “intervention” organized by LeBron James, involving Matthew Broderick, Chris Evert, and basketball announcer Marv Albert (all playing themselves) whose goal is to reunite Aaron with Amy. It is sickeningly unfunny, so bad even Hader seems to be grimacing from the acrid smell of burning jokes.
But then Amy, fired from her job for getting bombed and trying to sleep with a 16-year-old intern, retreats to her sister’s home, depressed in the wake of her father’s death (don’t ask), and confesses to her sister “I’m broken.” By this she means her way of life is wrecked, her partying and having a grand old time in the bedroom. But Apatow and Schumer have backed her character in a corner, and soon her only recourse is to throw out all her booze, stop being a slut, put on a cheerleader outfit, and win Aaron back by dancing on the Knicks court to “Uptown Girl”.
Yes, that is really the close of this film.
Along the way, Hader’s Aaron is referred to as “the boring one”, and unfortunately that’s true, so perfectly, painfully true. And if you’re a fan of Inside Amy Schumer as I am, Trainwreck becomes not only a crushing disappointment, but an utterly depressing one at that, as we see this woman fall into the arms of this schmuck at the expense of her dynamite personality.
It seems hard to imagine this happening to Amy Schumer. I honestly don’t know who bears responsibility for this Hindenberg. Trainwreck was written by Schumer, whereas her show, and especially the “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” episode was conceived by no less than ten writers, six of whom were women. (However, in a recent New York Times interview, Schumer claims to have written that show, even though the credits state otherwise…) In Hollywood, your name can be on the credits but the final product could belong almost entirely to someone else—script doctors have their hands in probably literally every major studio production there is. I don’t want to take anything away from Schumer, but if this is her doing, it’s baffling.
Can you imagine any other comedian succumbing to such a plot? Think back to Eddie Murphy’s characters on Saturday Night Live, and consider how awful it would be to see his angry black man put into a picture where he would have to deny this personality in order to fall in love with a professional who acts more white. That would be both painfully unfunny and disturbingly racist. But this is Trainwreck. As my wife noted, this doesn’t even feel like her picture—anyone could have played the lead. Schumer doesn’t own this movie, the way Melissa McCarthy owns every film she’s in, upstaging the cast of Bridesmaids and outgunning Oscar-winning co-star Sandra Bullock in The Heat. A dozen actresses could’ve played Amy and Schumer deserves better.