by Patrick Bromley
Since his breakthrough hit with The 40-Year Old Virgin a decade ago, writer/director Judd Apatow's films have become increasingly shapeless and indulgent. Ambitious? Sure. Funny? Mostly. But every new movie was messier than the last, culminating with This is 40, a movie that wanted to be personal and incisive and, in its best moments, succeeded but was mostly just muddled and masturbatory. It was the director's biggest misfire and made it seem as though it had become impossible for Apatow to get out of his own way.
That's why his latest film, Trainwreck, is such a welcome change of pace. He's gotten out of his own way and into someone else's -- namely, comedian Amy Schumer, who stars and wrote the screenplay largely informed by some of her own biographical details. She plays Amy (duh), a moderately successful writer for a trashy men's magazine in New York City. She drinks too much, sleeps around and has no interest in growing up. She idolizes her sick father (Colin Quinn, incredibly good), who lived his life the same way, and remains close with her younger sister (Brie Larson) even though she married a nerdy guy with a sweet but nerdy kid. Amy is assigned to write a story about Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a Manhattan sports doctor who's on the verge of performing a high profile knee replacement surgery on Amar'e Stoudemire of the New York Knicks. Amy and Aaron hit it off and start to get serious, throwing her entire life and worldview into chaos.
Schumer's script is incredibly smart. While its structure is formulaic -- the beats in Trainwreck are the same beats in almost any romantic comedy of the last 50 years -- it is full of insight and honesty and does not attempt to sand off all of the rough edges of its protagonist. We like Amy because she is funny and because she knows who she is, but that doesn't make her any less of a fuckup to whom it is almost impossible to get close. While I can't say for certain that this is the role that will turn Schumer into a movie star (it might be too specifically tailored to her strengths, which is a hard thing to recapture), it absolutely should. She's hysterically funny and sexy and vulnerable and fearless, and when the time comes to do some heavy dramatic stuff -- and the time does come -- Schumer completely nails it. There is a rawness to the conflict in her script and to her performance that keeps the film from floating away as another romcom trifle and grounds it in the uncomfortable realities of navigating our personal relationships. Cameron Crowe has been trying to recapture Billy Wilder's formula of mixing the sour and the sweet for years with little success. The movie he ought to be looking at is Trainwreck.
But these are mostly nitpicks, because for the most part Trainwreck is Apatow's strongest work as a director. Part of what has always made his films feel so shambling is that he has always seemed interested in servicing the gags first and the story a distant second, so he indulges in scene after scene of his repertory company improvising banter and only eventually gets around to advancing the plot. With Trainwreck, he strikes a good balance of serving the story and the jokes. Maybe it helps that he doesn't have his fingerprints all over the screenplay; while he did work on it, this is the first movie he's directed in which someone else gets sole writing credit.
The incredibly deep bench of actors and comics in the cast helps, too. It shouldn't be overlooked that Trainwreck is a big-budget romantic comedy with the incomparable Bill Hader as its leading man. He's great in the movie; while a brilliant comic and character actor, Hader is surprisingly good at playing "normal." Aaron might actually be a little too perfect. The film goes out of its way to make Amy a flawed character but doesn't give as much dimension to Hader, who exists largely as a standard to which Amy wants to meet. Hader is so charming in the part and has such a relaxed and fun chemistry with Schumer that I can forgive the simplicity of his character. There are also excellent supporting turns by Brie Larson (good in every movie) and comedians like the aforementioned Colin Quinn and Mike Birbiglia as Amy's brother in law. In fact, nearly every small role in the movie, from the homeless guy played by Dave Attell to the nurse played by Rachel Feinstein, is filled with one of Schumer's comedian friends. As someone who knows and follows stand-up, it's just an added bonus.