“Monogamy isn’t realistic,” says a soon-to-be-divorced dad to his two preteen daughters in an early scene from Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck.” Two decades later, those words have taken their toll on one of those erstwhile little girls — a tart-tongued, booze-swilling serial dater (writer-star Amy Schumer) whose love life is barreling downhill with ever-increasing velocity. She’s the screwed-up, screwball heroine at the center of a somewhat shaggy, frequently hilarious romantic comedy that, like much of Apatow’s best work, delicately balances irreverent raunch with candid insights into the give-and-take of grown-up relationships. The change in scenery (New York from Los Angeles) and gender emphases serves Apatow well, as does Schumer’s excitingly original comic voice, which should spell a critical and commercial rebound for the comedy impresario, following the mixed fortunes of his more sober, semi-autobiographical “Funny People” and “This Is 40.” The Universal release opens wide July 17 following its “work-in-progress” premiere at SXSW.
The persistent accusation that Apatow underserves his female characters has never really held water, given the smart, complex women played by Catherine Keener in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and by Leslie Mann (the real-life Mrs. Apatow) in “Funny People” and “This Is 40.” Still, “Trainwreck” is the first of Apatow’s five directorial features to focus on a female lead — and one with enough unbridled life force for a dozen ordinary characters. Schumer, a relative newcomer whose career up to now has mostly been in television, has written herself a gem of a role here — one that allows her to show the full range of her comic gifts while doing a lot to subvert the ossified codes that dictate how women in Hollywood romantic comedies are supposed to behave.
Whereas even the supposedly liberated protagonists of Nancy Meyers and the late Nora Ephron still mostly define themselves by the presence (or absence) of Mr. Right in their lives, Schumer’s Amy Townsend has long ago sworn off such aspirations (if she ever had them), looks upon her happily married sister (Brie Larson) the way a child looks at brussels sprouts, and uses men as disposably as the playboy-lothario heartbreakers in such movies tend to use women. Amy makes the first move and also the last, rarely spending the night and almost never returning for a second date — save for her semi-steady FWB, a musclebound lunkhead (a very game John Cena) who approaches sex as if it were a grueling CrossFit routine.
Amy is, in many ways, a chip off the old block: the daughter of a cantankerous, alcoholic dad (Colin Quinn) who was never really there for his girls (or their mother), and who’s now suffering from the advanced stages of MS. The cost of Dad’s assisted-living care becomes a running bone of contention for the sisters, and one of the ways Apatow (who’s always been attentive to matters of class and money) and Schumer maintain a baseline of real-world problems even as the plot begins to tilt in the direction of Tracy and Hepburn.
That shift occurs when Amy, a staff writer for a crass, Maxim-esque men’s magazine, gets assigned a profile of Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a rising star among sports-medicine doctors whose patients include LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire. In a device that’s as old as 1934’s “It Happened One Night” (one of several classic comedies, including “Manhattan,” to which “Trainwreck” tips its hat) and as recent as last year’s “Top Five,” journalist and subject soon find themselves throwing ethics to the wind and their bodies into each other’s arms. Which, in the case of “Trainwreck,” isn’t the end of the story, but merely the point where things start to get complicated.
Schumer and Hader (fresh off his breakout dramatic turn in last year’s “The Skeleton Twins”) are terrifically appealing together, in part because they aren’t cut from the standard movie-romance cloth, and because Schumer doesn’t give them standard movie-romance obstacles to overcome. There are no rival lovers here who must be jilted en route to the altar, but realer, trickier matters at hand, like Amy’s lifetime of dating men who failed to stir any deeper feelings in her, and Aaron’s gradual realization of what it really means to share your life with someone, for better and for worse. Doubtless, such sentiments will earn Apatow yet more accusations of being a closeted family-values pundit, but as the filmmaker himself has said repeatedly: Yes, as a child of divorce himself, he’s a believer in marriage, or at least monogamy, however unrealistic that may be.
Like Apatow, Schumer writes in a deeply personal vein and favors the kind of narrative detours and digressions that don’t necessarily further the plot (and which push the running time past the two-hour mark), but which enlarge our sense of the characters and the world they inhabit. In “Trainwreck,” that means considerable time spent fleshing out the staff of Snuff magazine, where Amy competes against her colleagues (Randall Park, Vanessa Bayer) for the favor of their castrating, Anna Wintour-ish boss (a hilarious Tilda Swinton, almost unrecognizable beneath pounds of bronze foundation and turquoise eyeshadow). Aaron’s workplace is considerably less cutthroat, despite all the literal bone and sinew, but it allows him time to play a little one-on-one with King James (a good sight gag), and to ponder Amy’s gale-force impact on his life.
Beat for beat, this is one of Apatow’s most consistently funny and charming films, right up to one of those extravagant displays of a character’s affections that would seem terribly corny if it weren’t so heartfelt. It’s also Apatow’s most cinematic work, with softly lit widescreen cinematography (on 35mm film stock) from d.p. Jody Lee Lipes (“Tiny Furniture,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and the surest sense of framing, camera placement and editing the director has yet demonstrated, free of the vestiges of sitcom television and its insistence on “punching in” for the joke.
In addition to James and Stoudemire, Apatow and Schumer have recruited a host of other sports-world figures (including Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo and former tennis champ Chris Evert) for self-effacing cameos, but the biggest surprise is indeed James, who plays himself — or, rather, a self-aggrandizing, penny-pinching version of himself — to deadpan perfection. Also deftly stealing a few scenes with the aplomb of a far younger man is the 100-year-old theater, film and television legend Norman Lloyd, cast as a fellow resident of Quinn’s elder-care retreat.