There was a time a decade ago when Judd Apatow was just about the undisputed kingmaker in the American comedy scene. Thanks to directorial hits like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and producing credits on other films bred out of his cadre of actors like Superbad or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. As a director, his star began to fade with the disappointments that were Funny People and the interminable This is 40, as his penchant for extraordinarily long formula comedies (This is 40 is nearly as long as Avengers: Age of Ultron) seemed like it was wearing thin. Still a kingmaker as a producer, as his work on Bridesmaids, HBO’s Girls and other projects would indicate, Apatow needed new blood to revitalize his career behind the camera.
Enter Amy Schumer.
Schumer, thanks to her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer, is one of the most buzzed-about female comedians in the business, using her particular brand of caustic satire and parody to shed a light on the taboo subjects of the day. The bright spotlight centered on her meant a move to the big screen was inevitable, though the pairing with Apatow on the face of it seemed like an odd mix. Just about all of Apatow’s films have been about a particular sort of developmentally arrested man-children (as well as strictly adhering to standard romantic comedy plot progression), the sort of trope Schumer has a tendency to rail against in her show. Yes, Apatow produced Bridesmaids, but he did not write or direct it. It would be interesting to see whose sensibilities would win out.
Trainwreck has provided us with the answer, and the answer is Judd Apatow. Schumer wrote the script for the film, but it would be interesting to see how much of it might have been altered during the course of filming. Schumer’s character, also named Amy, is the same sort of arrested post-adolescent we always see in these sort of Apatow comedies. She drinks a little too much, makes a lot of tell-it-like-it-is inappropriate jokes and retreats into a cloud of marijuana smoke. She’s in a sort-of relationship with a gigantic bodybuilder (John Cena, who might have a career in comedy away from the squared circle where he made his name), but sleeps around with impunity. The title of the film seems to indicate her life is a mess, despite the fact that she holds down a decent job at a men’s magazine, albeit under a crazy boss (Tilda Swinton) who is the sort of person to assign Amy the article on the sports doctor instead of the person who pitched it because she hates sports and that might spice things up. Of course, this lines everything up for a standard opposites attract model of storytelling when she meets the doctor, Aaron (Bill Hader), who she is destined to fall in love with and change her ways.
Every beat of Trainwreck is predictable. Amy and Aaron try to make a go of it and break up thanks to a misunderstanding, only for her to realize she really needs him thanks to an unrelated trauma involving a family member (both Colin Quinn as her father and Brie Larson as her sister are excellent). The third act is particularly rote and on the rails, the greatest indication that, for everything we might have heard, Apatow is driving this bus far more than Schumer is. Trainwreck is classic Apatow, running about twenty minutes longer than it should and rigidly following structure (there’s a five minute scene near the climax of the third act featuring a handful of cameos that is the perfect distillation of why Apatow’s more is more approach to studio comedies has its flaws). It is also classic Apatow in the sense that it is very often riotously funny. He has a knack for casting, and while no one should be surprised the Schumer and Hader bring the laughs with ease, his real gift lies in hiring talents like Swinton, Randall Park and Vanessa Bayer to round out the support, as well as pulling strong comedic turns from (generally) non-actors like Cena, Lebron James and Amar’e Stoudamire. There is a baseline of success in Trainwreck, as even when it drags, and even when it lets you down with how pat its ending is, it still makes you laugh consistently throughout those two hours.
While it is true that the gender roles have reversed for Trainwreck compared to The 40-Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, the archetypes have not really budged that much. This is still the story of a child in an adult body being brought into maturity by a relationship with the opposite sex. One cannot help but feel disappointed that this seems to be a case of Apatow bringing Schumer down to his level instead of Schumer bringing Apatow up to hers. This is the sort of story she goes out of her way to dress down on her show. It is an odd experience, really, as the movie is genuinely side-splittingly funny at times, and that sense of goodwill does linger in the mind. Indeed, if Schumer and Apatow and co. had reached their resolution in a way that does not feel so baldly formulaic, that good feeling might have lasted longer after the credits rolled. I would love to see Schumer get her own unfettered big studio comedy (she directed that excellent 12 Angry Men parody herself, so she clearly has the chops). That could be something special. As it is, Trainwreck makes her seem more like a role player in the Apatow machine.