The thing to keep in mind before going in to Trainwreck is that, at it’s core, it is still a romantic comedy. In fact, that might be the key to its success. The moments that have been codified as the modern romantic comedy (or chick flick, if you’re into gendering movies/ kind of suck), the meet-cute, the third act breakup, the Grand Romantic Gesture, etc., are all present in Trainwreck; it’s the cultural attitudes and the characters that inform these moments that makes Trainwreck something truly unique.
Amy Townsend (Amy Schumer) is a columnist for a men’s magazine (no, not that kind) living a life of heavy drinking and casual sex. Assigned to write about up-and-coming sports doctor Aaron Connors (Bill Hader), Amy and Aaron end up sleeping together. Breaking her rule about staying the night, Amy realizes that she’s falling for Aaron, and the two begin dating. Acting against her own nature, Amy tries to maintain a monogamous relationship with Aaron, while also contending with her father’s (Colin Quinn) ailing health and the demands of her editor Dianna (unrecognizable Tilda Swinton).
Trainwreck isn’t about building the romantic comedy from the ground up; it’s about approaching the structure we have from a new angle. Amy’s character arc ultimately isn’t that different from that of the usual Judd Apatow protagonist; an adult-child had to struggle against their shortcomings and selfishness in the name of love. It’s the same character arc Seth Rogen overcomes on a regular basis. So why does it feel revolutionary here? The answer lies in what the movie determines Amy’s shortcomings to be.
Amy is self-centered, frequently drunk/ high, and inconsiderate to the feelings of her friends and loved ones. Her promiscuity, however is not depicted as one of her flaws. Written by Schumer, Amy’s sexuality is not a cry for help or a sign of damage. Her sex life is portrayed without judgement, even if Amy herself is sort of a jerk. Most importantly, Amy is not defined by her sexual encounters. Making a rom com about a promiscuous woman entering a committed relationship without chiding her for her sexual history is a thin line to walk, yet Schumer pulls it off with grace.
The subtler key to Trainwreck‘s success is that the ways in which the people in play act like, well, people. Amy Schumer and Bill Hader are both wonderful and charming in this movie, but neither is exactly what comes to mind for the usual rom com lead. Talking to a friend after seeing the movie, she noted the smallness of the female lead’s best friend character Nikki (Vanessa Bayer) in comparison with similar roles in other rom coms. In many ways, Schumer seems to fill gaps that character usually fills. In typical rom coms, the female lead’s quirkiness too often seems to boil down to “being Katherine Heigl” and “falling down more than most people”. Schumer is allowed to be funny in the way female leads typically don’t get to be. While this means Bayer is often left with very little to do, it also makes for a much more dynamic lead.
Similarly, Bill Hader gets more wiggle room with his part than similar ones filled by the Chris Evans’ and pre-McConaissance Matthew McConaugheys of the world. Nerdy and sweet, he’s a good foil for the harder-edged Schumer, and the two coming together is genuinely warm (and apparently much better than the coming together in They Came Together). His scenes with the Male Lead’s Friend– here played by LeBron James as himself– are some of the funniest scenes in the movie. His issues with Schumer’s past– while not exactly enlightened– feel natural to the character, and to real life.
Filling in the cracks between the main characters like so much comedic spackle, is a lion’s share of funny people. In addition to LeBron James and shape-shifting Tilda Swinton are, Randall Park, Mike Birbiglia, Dave Attell, Tim Meadows, Daniel Radcliffe, John Cena, and many, many others. I get wary of films with sprawling cameos, too often they seem like an attempt to patch over a lack of substance, but the cameos here don’t pull the viewer out of the film. As is his wont, Apatow’s direction builds in room for improvisation, which sometimes make for great comedy moments, and other times make for scenes that lurch well past the place they should have ended, and there’s a fair share of lurching happening here.
Trainwreck is a well-made, if standard rom com that feels transgressive when compared with its genre. The conversation surrounding the film makes it to be far more polemic than it is in actuality, but only because it’s point of view is shockingly rare in mainstream comedy. Whether Trainwreck sets a standard or becomes an exception to the rules of the genre remains to be seen, but at the very least it will be secure in its legacy as a romantic comedy that managed to maintain its comedy while finding a new way to think about the romance.