If it takes a kind of genius to strike gold, then consider Judd Apatow a genius. In the fifteen years since the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks, that altar before which all unduly cancelled TV shows kneel, Apatow has proven himself to be both a director of wildly varying success and an unrivaled recognizer of that most elusive of Hollywood traits: mass appeal. From the spark of his interest, conflagrations grow; he recognizes future stardom like it’s a port-wine stain. His gift does usually double as a curse–every Jason Segel seems to beget a Lena Dunham, from every James Franco performance slink fifty James Franco poems–but his successes have, for the most part, outweighed his failures. Apatow has written and directed two outright classics, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, while having a hand in a slew of others (Anchorman, Superbad, Pineapple Express). His brand, if the word must be invoked, is a blend of crass comedy and domestic drama, held together by digressions of heavily referential improvisation. For better and for worse, this schtick has become mainstream comedy’s norm, and few films released in the genre today fail to carry, either directly or indirectly, his imprimatur. The amount of comedy directors who’ve had an influence as profound as his can be counted on three fingers. So, too, can the number of plainly awful films he has made in a row: Funny People, This is 40, and now Trainwreck.
Any proper discussion of Trainwreck begins and ends with Amy Schumer, the late night comedienne who also wrote the film. This is unapologetically a star vehicle, conceived as such by its star, and its delights and faults should rightly be attributed to her, the consciousness from which this world and these characters sprung. Schumer is more performer than actress, more sketch writer than screenwriter, but she seems aware of these deficiencies, and willing to play with them. Her confidence, however ill-founded it may be, could justifiably be listed as the film’s second lead. If you aren’t a fan of Schumer’s comedy, you can see why people would be. She seems incapable of questioning herself, of doubting the certitude of her worldview, and that conviction can be intoxicating for audiences. It can also be deluding, particularly when the comedienne not questioning herself is so unquestionably wrong about so many, many things, as Amy Schumer is. From the first scenes of Trainwreck, a high-heeled walk of shame from Staten Island back to Manhattan, it’s apparent what Judd Apatow saw in Amy Schumer. It wasn’t solely the appeal. It was the discovery of an artist as unfunny and self-deceiving as he has become. The gold he has struck is fool’s.
In Trainwreck, Schumer plays Amy Townsend, a staff writer for a men’s magazine called S’nuff, a satirical take on Maxim likely operating under the umbrella of Jazz Hate, the august periodical that gave Hannah her first break on GIRLS. (The from-the-car-service-window version of New York in Trainwreck is firmly situated in the Lena Dunham Cinematic Universe. All of the film’s main characters, discounting Amy, are multi-millionaires. She is simply rich.) Despite her professed hatred for sports, Amy is assigned to write an article about Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports surgeon whose best friend happens to be LeBron James, an athlete who has never had surgery but who does expand the movie’s appeal in key demos. (John Cena also shows up in a few crypto-homophobic scenes, for similarly craven reasons.) What follows is a by-the-numbers rom-com plot so generic it ranks as one of the film’s funnier jokes. Amy and Aaron fall in love, out of love, back in; their chemistry sizzles with all the heat of two drifting-apart glaciers. What little obvious thought went into the plot inspires a proportionate amount of investment in the viewer. The story collapses under the dead weight of the jokes, then the jokes are crushed beneath the ruins of the story. The disaster befits the title.
Comedy is a zero-sum game, laughter its only metric–the audience either does or does not laugh. And if a lack of laughter were Trainwreck‘s biggest problem, it’d probably be seen as a victory given Apatow’s recent output. But Trainwreck isn’t just unfunny, it’s unfunny in ways that cause genuine concern for the spiritual wellbeing of the people who made it. Most of the film’s jokes play like hypotheticals dreamed up by a stoned avatar of the 18-29 demographic. What if John Cena was gay? What if LeBron James was cheap? What if there was this dirty homeless guy outside your building all the time, and you just unloaded your deranged bourgeois problems on him every chance you got, and never once tried to help him? These are the high concept comedic hoops through which Schumer jumps. One scene, in which LeBron James, Chris Everett (why), Matthew Broderick (never explained), and Marv Albert (please stop) attempt to convince Aaron to get back together with Amy, actually produces the non-sound of laughter dying. The idea, like too many in this movie, hits the screen with the unexamined daring of a bird slamming into a high rise window. There is sporadic humor to be found in Trainwreck, in Mike Birbiglia as Amy’s gooberific brother-in-law, in Vanessa Bayer as her doltish, ever-smiling coworker, but nearly everything else that appears on-screen with Amy is merely a repository for her generalized ridicule. A better written movie would have had this rage be an extension of Amy’s self-hate, but here it’s essentially blind, wrathful flailing, a product of neither her past nor present circumstances. The character is vague and insubstantial in everything but her ignorance. There isn’t enough self for her to hate.
In her repackaging of Chelsea Handler comedy for Facebook Feminists, Amy Schumer has achieved outsize success, amassing a devoted, misguided following while staking a real, vital claim for female comedians in a male-dominated culture. That her undercooked observational comedy works better in four-minute bursts should have been apparent to everyone involved, but they and she have unfortunately come under the guidance of a filmmaker masochistically assured in his errors. Schumer does have an artistic voice, it just happens to be pure vocal fry, and two hours of sustained glottal rattle is an offense to all who value their ears. So much of this movie is a disaster, yet Schumer’s character isn’t–she’s a successful staff writer for a major magazine who is dating a world-renowned surgeon. Aside from her ungrounded meanness, the craziest thing about her is that she owns a one-hitter, and seemingly uses it once a month. She needed to be more trainwreck-y, not the film itself. In Schumer, Judd Apatow has finally found a way to break his streak of failures: he has contracted someone else to fail for him. Considering the final product, it is hard to argue that Schumer deserved better. Hers is a trainwreck in everything but effect. You can’t help but look away.
Final Strawberry Verdict: 2.5 Strawberries out of 5