Trainwreck: I’m confused

trainwreckThis post has spoilers about the new movie Trainwreck.

I checked out the new Judd Apatow movie Trainwreck the other night. It stars and was cowritten by Amy Schumer, the star of Inside Amy Schumer. Schumer is very talented, funny, and sexy, and she deserves a movie. She’s recently been anointed The Symbol of 21st Century Feminism by our culture industry, which is a terrible burden to place on an actual human being, but she’s handled it well so far. And she’s frequently very charming in Trainwreck, the story of how a magazine journalist who loves to party and fears commitment falls for a doctor named Aaron, played by Bill Hader.

Sadly, mostly I’m just confused by the movie. The essential problem is that almost none of the characters seem to make sense, most especially the two main characters. They’re a collection of traits that seem to have been thrown into a bag and mixed together without much care for story logic.

Take the character played by professional wrestler John Cena, Amy’s boyfriend at the beginning of the film. Cena is game, and Apatow makes good use of his cartoonishly muscled body for comedy purposes. But I am just baffled as to what this guy is supposed to be about. The most consistent jokes about him are that he’s gay and doesn’t know it, and that his weightlifting obsession reveals his latent homosexuality. Which, OK, fine. He also wants to settle down and raise a family. That could work too, I suppose — a closeted/self-misunderstanding gay man who wants to build a family but can’t conceive of one with another man. But that’s not really dramatized at all. He seems genuine when he tells Amy he wants to settle down with her. He’s legitimately wounded when he finds out she sleeps with other men. So who is this dude? I feel like it’s a bunch of different comedy beats — he says weightlifting cliches during sex; he’s unknowingly gay; he’s big and tough-looking but doesn’t know how to be mean; he wants commitment with a woman who is not at all interested — that got squeezed into one character.

Or take Tilda Swinton’s character. Swinton’s been getting raves for her performance, but I find the character so undercooked it’s hard to enjoy the performance. She’s Amy’s mean boss at S’nuff. It’s not really clear what her title is; at one point, both Amy and her friend at work are up for the job of Executive Editor, which would seem to be Swinton’s job. Anyway the comedy comes from her character’s total lack of empathy as a boss, though she shows up to Amy’s father’s funeral, for some reason. She hands out insults in the typical style, but aggressively promotes Amy’s career until she stops. She assigns an interview with a sports doctor to sports-hating Amy because she wants that to bring tension to the piece. Which is OK reasoning, I suppose, but of course the obvious problems immediately become problems as soon as Amy starts the interview. Is Swinton’s character ultra-competent at her job? Incompetent? It’s hard to tell.

Amy’s father, played by Colin Quinn, is an irascible bigot with a heart of gold. Quinn’s pretty good in the part, but aside from Amy telling a story about him beating up a child at his funeral, him having a heart of gold is never dramatized. He’s just sick. Amy’s best friend at work Nikki is played by Vanessa Bayer, who’s funny and cute. But it’s unclear what she does at S’nuff and if she’s any good at it. There’s a very funny part where she can’t stop smiling out of nervousness, which is true to life and well played. But mostly she just kind of vibrates around the office. There’s no sense that she’s good at her job or what she even does. Yet she ends up being given the Executive Editor position that was once reserved for Amy. Why? Lebron James functions as Hader’s stock best dude friend romcom character, and that conceit’s as clever as people are saying. James is a bit up-and-down, sometimes quite poised, sometimes stilted. But the problem is in the writing: why are he and Aaron such good friends? I’m not really talking plot-wise; I don’t need some elaborate origin story for their friendship. But their interactions don’t seem to bring any joy to Hader’s character. The basic dynamic is that Lebron is impossibly nice and Aaron is kind of tetchy and irritable. Lebron shows a loving intimacy that’s not really earned in any way.

My favorite scene in the movie involves Hader playing basketball with Lebron, having the classic/cliched “playing hoops and talking about this crazy thing called love” scene. The funny wrinkle is that Lebron James is Lebron James, and he doesn’t let up at all against normal human Bill Hader. Unfortunately, I feel like the stuff they talk about doesn’t have any connection to the actual relationship we’re seeing on screen. Sometimes the movie says that Aaron is afraid of rejection or of getting too close or similar. In an excruciatingly flat sequence, Lebron stages a love intervention for Aaron with Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick, and Marv Albert playing themselves. I sort of get the absurdism of what they were going for, but holy moly it doesn’t work. Setting aside the lack of laughs for a minute though. I don’t care that there’s no real reason for any of these people to know the things about Aaron that they are saying to him. Maybe Lebron told them, whatever. The problem is that we don’t know any of this stuff because it’s never been dramatized. Marv Albert says in his commentator’s voice that Aaron is afraid of commitment. Really? Since when? When was that ever shown in the movie?

This lack of a coherent vision of the relationship stems from the lack of a coherent vision of the characters in it. Amy and Aaron are just totally underdrawn. For me it kills the movie. Aaron is a guy without serious flaws, as far as I can tell, yet he’s unlucky in love. I am not a relationship guru but in my experience tall, handsome, rich New York City doctors with celebrity friends and beautiful apartments tend to do alright. So why has he not had a relationship for six years? In a typical romcom he’d have some sort of crippling drawback, but aside from an initial feint or two in that direction, there’s nothing; he’s just a good dude. Maybe he’s too busy for a relationship with his career? But that’s never stated, and he seems to have plenty of time to date Amy, hang out with Lebron, and so on. Maybe he’s chosen not to have a relationship? But he’s the one who initiates romance with Amy. Pretty much the initial arc of the relationship is that he likes her, she likes him too, she uses her role as a journalist as an excuse to avoid the commitment that scares her, he basically says “be my girlfriend anyway,” and she does. I expected that, just as he gets Amy to get more serious and take better care of herself, she’d teach him to loosen up a little. But he’s not really ever shown to be too uptight in the first place and there’s no sense in which he evolves over the course of the movie.

The script’s biggest sin, in my opinion, is making Amy into a writer and then demonstrating almost total indifference to her writing. She’s a writer at a national magazine, but we know almost nothing about her writing itself. She never really expresses any ambitions for where she wants her career to go. It would be typical in a movie like this for the main character to aspire to a more adult, more literary/journalistic/serious publication than a Maxim stand-in, but there’s nothing like that here. She writes her profile of Aaron, which ends up getting printed in Vanity Fair after she’s fired for a failed tryst with a 16-year old intern. (Who looks closer to 30 than 16 but that’s Hollywood.) We hear a little bit of it, and it seems she’s pitched it as a semi-confessional about herself as well. Those snippets are the closest we come to having any sense of who Amy is as a writer. Aaron has a successful, well-defined career, and he expresses why it’s valuable and fulfilling for him. He also gets to be shown as a humanitarian. In contrast, Amy’s publication is shown to be inherently unserious and there’s little to demonstrate that she’s talented at her job or proud of her work within it.The movie’s lack of interest in her career is particularly frustrating because a plot point turns on her derision towards cheerleaders, which Aaron then responds to by launching into an anti-snark argument. But is Amy’s writing snarky? I have no idea.

Ultimately we just know more about what Amy isn’t than what she is. She has no female friends who aren’t part of her family or coworkers. She knows bizarrely little about sports despite working for a lad mag. She drinks, sleeps around, and smokes weed, all of which are harshly (and grossly, in my opinion) judged in the movie. But honestly, I kept waiting for a trainwreck in Trainwreck. Even the rock-bottom intern sex scene is played as a matter of miscommunication. The movie wants her to be a trainwreck but refuses to really show her acting like one; it wants Amy and Aaron’s relationship to have these major problems of trust, commitment, and fear, and yet it just never does. The movie’s conflict comes from personalities that don’t seem to exist within the actual movie; they’re just described by characters in it. This all sounds super harsh, and I don’t mean it to be. I’m not an Apatow hater and I’m eager to see what Schumer comes up with next. I’m just scratching my head at the script.

Also Knicks fans going crazy for Amare Stoudemire returning would be like Knicks fans going crazy for Isaiah Thomas returning.