Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck promises rude, clever fun. Does it deliver? Abby Olcese and Catherine Woodiwiss discuss. (Light spoilers in parentheses.)
Catherine Woodiwiss: Okay, so I was a little concerned that Trainwreck was just going to be an exact inversion of "the guy’s a mess, the girl’s uptight" Judd Apatow comedy set-up. And it’s not just that! But I am a little surprised how conventional it felt ultimately.
Abby Olcese: I enjoyed it. I enjoyed her getting to be a mess. Right up until the point where she breaks up with Jon Cena — which is an absurd sentence that I just said — up until that point, she’s really awful. But (Spoiler) when her dad died, and when Aaron visited for the first time and took care of him, those were very conventional story beats (End spoiler). I’m curious about that.
In her show, the Aaron Sorkin parody, the 12 Angry Men parody are really pointed, specific things and she’s using those tropes for a reason. So I wondered if that had a larger purpose in the long form. And I’m not entirely sure it did.
Woodiwiss: Amy’s style of comedy has always been a blend of pointed commentary and "do what the guys do but be a girl doing it." I thought it very subtle and clever that any on-screen nudity was male. And really, there was a significant range of interpretation of masculinity in the film — the impossibly muscular bro who was gay, the intern who was possibly transgender. Bill Hader, who is not the stereotypical leading man. And LeBron James, who is basically the Platonic form of male athlete.
But the women didn’t have the same diversity — they were all pretty stock characters.
And her dig at cheerleaders (derisively comparing them to strippers) was odd. Was that a subtle skewering of the "girl gets boyfriend and gets protective and starts denigrating other women" trope? Maybe, but it just sounded like a cheap shot.
Olcese: The last thing I wrote down was, was that really just all over the place?
Woodiwiss: Say more.
Olcese: There were parts of it that felt like she was poking direct fun at the tropes of romantic comedy, like basketball game, which is itself a comedy trope — a guy playing pickup with his friends. I like that they went over the top and thought, "How could we make this absurd? Oh, let’s have him playing basketball with LeBron James, and talk about sensitive relationship topics."
And then she included personal narration that came and went — I think it showed up twice and then was totally gone. She reads her article aloud. There’s nobody in the room, who are you reading that to? I wanted that to be a joke, really hard, but I don’t think it was.
Woodiwiss: Given the setup, I found it strange that her character’s major pivot (Spoiler) is telling her married pregnant sister, "I want what you have, I just don’t think I can have it."
Olcese: "I know who I am, and I’m broken."
Woodiwiss: It reminded me of HBO’s Togetherness, where the perennially single forty-something sister in the end confesses, "I’m not that fun really, I’m empty inside, I’m a shell of myself." For that sentiment — that more or less translates as "let’s all admit that anything other than marriage is an empty life" — to be repeated by Amy was a surprising development. It felt like a narrative cop-out. (End spoiler)
Olcese: So — if I’m trying to describe to my mom why I like this movie, and she has a problem with the amount of sex jokes and makes a comment like, "You don’t have to talk about sex to be funny" — what’s the defense? Because really it’s pretty out there.
Woodiwiss: Ummm ... that Bill Hader is great? No, Trainwreck’s humor is pretty explicitly reliant on sexual humor. So the simple answer would be, if you don’t like that humor … I don’t see a reason to see it. But comedy is most successful when it’s both relatable and alienating.
Olcese: The shock value of seeing a naked Jon Cena on top of Amy Schumer — that’s an inherently ridiculous thing, and Amy gets that. She knows how to make that material accessible, things that most women can understand, appreciate, and find funny no matter what their feelings and values are. There’s a least a chunk of the film where anyone can say, "Yep, there, that right there."
Woodiwiss: That’s one thing that’s so appealing about the increased attention on female comedians today who do talk frankly about being a woman — there’s joy and humor in finding things to be common experiences that you didn’t know were, and many of those things are either very physically intimate or just things that women have to deal with and historically haven’t been given the space to talk about. Like, Amy just made a really gratuitous tampon joke. And it’s funny that I absolutely know what she’s talking about. And it’s, "Oh yeah, you too! Of course. THANK you."
Olcese: And the condom story, which was completely ridiculous— I’ve heard stories like that before. So you have this weird experience of going "Oh no! ...And I’ve heard that before." And I think it’s important that there’s a wider experience of femininity shown than your own.
Woodiwiss: You mentioned earlier that you were thinking about your interview with Dylan Marron [creator of Every Single Word] during Trainwreck.
Olcese: So when Dylan Marron and I talked about his project, he raised some criteria for people of color in film:
"When you isolate the words spoken by people of color, are you be able to understand anything about the overall story? Do the characters of color ever speak in the first person about feelings or emotions that they are experiencing or have experienced? Are most of the characters of color given names or are they credited as their role in the story? Does the isolated dialogue last five minutes or longer? If yes to all of these, then they pass."
Woodiwiss: There’s a disparity between the famous athletes and anybody else of color in Trainwreck, as you pointed out.
But when you look at it, the number of people of color that had a lot of lines in this movie was really very high, which was cool to see. And interesting in the context of the brouhaha over the last couple weeks—
Olcese: Oh yeah. "Does Amy Schumer have a blind spot for race?"
Woodiwiss: Yeah. Do you feel like that showed up?
Olcese: Well, the movie explained where that attitude came from in her character (namely, from her dad). Like when she shows Aaron a picture of her "black friend" and it’s a waiter, and you’re like, really?
She’s also given the defense that she’s playing a character who is incompetent and silly. So I don’t know if she’s trying to build up a dichotomy in context or whether it’s just there.
Woodiwiss: OH. Oh. Does it also pass the Bechtel Test? She has a sister, a best friend, and a boss…but every conversation at least with the first two was about men.
Olcese: Huh. Her conversations with her editor were about the piece she was writing. But given the number of women in the film, there should be more examples.
Woodiwiss: I don’t love that.
Olcese: No, I don’t love that either.
Woodiwiss: We could split hairs there, too — does it pass because they’re talking about the piece, or not, because the piece itself is entirely about her boyfriend? Etc.
Olcese: Yeah. That’s very odd. That does bother me. So, in Ant-Man there is one single female character, and it definitely does not pass the Bechtel, but there are very specific reasons why she is the one female character in the film, and that is addressed. So I don’t really have a problem with that.
But this one I do, because it’s a movie about women with relationships with each other on many different levels and should be about something other than their relationship with men, but they’re not. And what do the guys talk about? Sports.
Woodiwiss: Paying the check. Surgery.
Olcese: Cleveland. A lot.
Oh yeah, the [female] editor talks to her friend about her smile… I feel like I’m working really hard to justify this passing and I shouldn’t have to be working this hard. I think we can establish that it passes on a technicality, but no means with flying colors, which is very odd for a movie about women.
Woodiwiss: Score another one for "I’m just hanging out with the dudes."
Well, our verdict on the film sounds pretty synonymous with our verdict on Amy-as-comedian herself — inconsistent, but really funny. Judged on her own merits and what she’s explicitly said she’s trying to do, which is be funny, Trainwreck passes.