Chastened Amy: ‘Trainwreck’ Fails Its Breakout Star; Also, the Pleasantly Surprising ‘Ant-Man’Universal Pictures
Amy Schumer seems like a milkmaid in a Mel Brooks movie or on Benny Hill. So whenever she goes to churn butter, she’ll always do it as though she’s actually making something else. But her comedy is beyond simulation. It deals with the thing being simulated: blowjobs, anal sex, and all the rest. The title of her Comedy Central show gets right to the point: Inside Amy Schumer. On it, she’s the funniest neurotic in America. The neurosis hails from no pure comedy tradition. All the worry is happy or drunken; the insecurities are so ingrained that they register in reverse, as narcissism.
Over three seasons, the show has tightened and thought its way to brilliance. It goes after the social double standards of sex and gender at work, in relationships, and in the culture, and it satirizes the damage men and women do to each other and to themselves. Even when a sketch is as obvious as one from the end of Season 2, in which Schumer spends a day obsessively grooming herself for a date while being bombarded with enticements for further, weirder grooming, it’s funny because the idea takes the express train to lunacy, with her looking hot but cowering in terror under her bed. The show works because we know where Schumer’s coming from.
Now she’s the star of Trainwreck, a Judd Apatow–directed romantic comedy she wrote, and I have no idea where it’s coming from. The title seems like a designation more for the film than for the promiscuous partier Schumer plays. It’s got no rhythm or reliable comfort zone. The jokes and ensemble scenes are all rushed, so you can’t savor them or what anyone in them is doing. Schumer’s character, Amy Townsend, writes for S’Nuff, a Manhattan-based lad mag overseen by Dianna, a skinny, spray-tanned Tilda Swinton, snidely answering the unasked question, What if Toni Collette were made of dried apricots?
The first staff meeting comes early in the film, and you know you’re in trouble because no one seems to know what the joke is. Dianna’s hunt for story pitches (the staff includes Schumer, Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park, and Jon Glaser) also feels like a hunt for gags. (“You Call Those Tits?” is one potential feature.) Swinton bites down on the part, but the sequence is full of reaction shots, so you can never quite take in the joke her face and body language are telling. This is to say that Apatow is looking for comedy in the wrong spots. Or maybe he was saving Swinton from herself. Either way, it’s a flat scene, but it’s not the only one.
Amy leaves the meeting with an assignment: She’ll profile Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), knee surgeon to the stars. His clientele consists mostly of sports legends she’s never heard of. As she enters Aaron’s office, LeBron James is exiting and she doesn’t know who he is. Maybe this is supposed to make her story better, because either her ignorance will be upended or her skepticism could unearth some journalistic surprise, but the whole thing is just a setup for an unethical, unconvincing romance. You keep looking for Aaron to notice some sparkle in Amy that allows him to proceed. But it’s just the script obeying a diagram.
As a character, Amy’s a mess — not in the way “train wreck” would imply, just as a conception. She’s narcissistic, caustic, tantrum-prone, rarely sober, and situationally ignorant — and not only about sports (she thinks it’s “Doctors With Borders”). Loosely, she’s a bigot, too. When Aaron asks her to produce a photo of a black friend, she sheepishly shows him one of herself, a friend, and their waiter. Schumer’s mix of delusional certitude and chagrin is actually funny. But after enough of these scenes, you’re asking yourself who is this woman, and what is it Schumer is trying to say with her? If the character doesn’t work, then neither can the movie.
It’s got a good opening scene that’s set during Amy’s girlhood, in which she and her sister listen as their father (Colin Quinn) explains why their mother is kicking him out of the house. He compares marriage to being stuck for life with the same doll and implores them to repeat, “Monogamy isn’t realistic.” There’s a cut forward 23 years, when Amy is drunkenly bedding impossibly endowed strangers; discovering, in horror, that she has awakened in Staten Island; and taking mincing, high-heeled steps along a walk of shame that culminates in a humiliated/triumphal stretch on the deck of the Staten Island ferry. She does all of this while holding down a he-man boyfriend named Steven (John Cena), who wants more from Amy than she knows how to give.
Cena isn’t bad in his handful of scenes. But even the small parts suffer from being overconceived and underwritten. Steven wants monogamy with Amy, but he also seems gay. And the movie doesn’t see any of those possibilities through, either. In bed one night, Amy asks Steven to talk during sex, and the best he can do is stuff like, “I’m gonna fill you with my protein.” Is he actually closeted, gay for himself, or just lousy in bed? The gay boyfriend is a relatable worry in Schumer’s comedy that rarely ends in belly laughs but always provides some insight into her paranoid distrust. In popular culture, men dreaming of having a gay girlfriend is a cliché. In Schumer’s world (and, frankly, beyond it), having a gay boyfriend is something women dread, and the depiction of that dread is rare in mainstream culture. But the movie shares Amy’s preemptive promiscuity. It’s always on to the next thing to keep from dealing with the matter at hand.
That opening scene with Quinn and the little daughters turns sour once you realize, an hour later, that he wasn’t delivering a thesis. He was riffing. There is something psychological under the surface of this movie, something about sex and a fear of monogamy, but the movie isn’t exploring that. It just stays busy. Amy and her sister, Kim (Brie Larson), make numerous nursing-home visits to see Quinn as he spews something crude or racist or insulting. (The movie has literalized his on-set curmudgeon routine.) Amy insults Kim’s bland, doughy husband (Mike Birbiglia) and is freaked out by his precocious son (Evan Brinkman). (There’s a very funny moment at one of Manhattan’s Alice in Wonderland theme cafés, when Amy gets a load of her brother-in-law and the kid beaming at each other and says, “They’re, like, on a speed date.”)
Because things are so thin on Amy’s end, the movie tries to give Aaron some of the action, but it just confuses everything more. His scenes without Amy are excuses to showcase access to LeBron James, who, along with Cena, feels more substantial than anyone here, but who, even as himself, has nothing to do but butler and chauffeur Amy and Aaron’s relationship into existence. The filmmakers don’t appear to think much of him. He gets to go one-on-one with Hader on a basketball court and earnestly recite the lyrics to “Gold Digger.” (Method Man has a more embarrassingly thankless part as Quinn’s Caribbean orderly.)
Hader doesn’t play Aaron as LeBron’s friend, per se, but as a tolerant acquaintance of James’s cute confidence. Hader might be the best natural actor of all of the longtime Saturday Night Live cast members, and you can feel him building a character here. But I didn’t leave Trainwreck with a sense of who that character is. Instead of reducing Amy’s obnoxiousness, it punches his up, like in a restaurant scene in which he asks for the check by shouting for it. I laughed because I’m helpless against an antic Hader, but it’s a nonsensical quirk for this guy to have. The entire film proceeds from that kind of nonsense. At some point, LeBron stages a love intervention on Aaron’s behalf. James sits alongside Chris Evert and Matthew Broderick while Marv Albert does play-by-play, and it’s impossible to overstate the degree to which this sequence isn’t funny. It’s like watching five people die in a fire, except the culprit is limp comedy instead of arson. Evert looks mortified before she has even said her one vulgar line. It seems as if they’ve all been force-fed their dialogue and only some of them know it’s poison. In a scene like this, you don’t know where Schumer’s reality-check comedy ends and Apatow’s adolescent fantasies begin.
Apatow just put out a collection of interviews with comedians that he’s been conducting since he was a kid. It’s called Sick in the Head, and it’s a fun, enlightened book whose insights come from conversations guided by Apatow’s wonder and respect and awe, but also from his genuine human curiosity — all of which were on display in The 40-Year-Old Virgin but gradually have been seeping out. It’s been replaced by stubbornness and incuriosity. Now there’s a banal certitude to his movies. This is how the world works — like how the movies say it does. Apatow has been surpassed by his friend Paul Feig, a writer and director of film comedies1 who doesn’t have to hunt for a joke. He has the assurance and preparation to build a scene — and often a single shot — around a guaranteed laugh.
In the book, Apatow confesses to having wanted to work with Schumer since he heard her on Howard Stern’s radio show. Her sense of freshness drew him to her. It made him want to direct her. With Trainwreck, I’m not sure he has. The wildness he perceived, and the sense of not giving a fuck, really works on her television show. That’s the kind of feminism that powers it — the self-conscious performance of unself-consciousness, of exploring what it means for women to behave, socially, like men. Where, then, are the lines of propriety, and who defines where those lines go? The sketches are brief, barbed, and all point to a big idea about women, sexuality, and personality. A particular sketch can be a mess, but, by the third season, the ideas unify, and they sting.
Most of Trainwreck is sketchy, too, but in the manner of a random, mistaken assembly of an outtake reel. Throughout we get glimpses of a lame, black-and-white romantic comedy that stars Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei, and it’s there to remind you that things could always have been worse. The film feels like something that Schumer might have written or wanted to write years ago, when she was still searching for a persona. But the thing is, Schumer doesn’t have one. She has many, and the virtue of a sketch show is that you can discard them once they’ve served a purpose. But she and Apatow don’t appear to be interested in sustaining an actual woman in an actual romantic comedy, and if you’re Parker Posey or even Drew Barrymore, that kind of daffy caricature can get you through a 90- or 100-minute movie. This one lasts for more than two hours, and never once is there a moment in which Schumer makes a case for stardom the way she does on her show. She could be a new, improved Bette Midler. You get the sense that she’s trying to reintroduce the psychological wackiness that Midler eventually forsook in order to do heavenward schmaltz. It’s not just sexism and self-hate that Schumer wants to bring down, it’s cute, half-assed romantic fantasies. But Trainwreck turns out to be too much of that kind of fantasy. The milkmaid isn’t that filthy after all. She actually is just making butter.
Sometimes you get to a movie ready to walk right out. There’s an air of inevitability that’s a turnoff. It doesn’t even need an audience to be a hit. It could pay to watch itself. Some superhero movies and film series are that way. But not Ant-Man. This is the sort of movie where you see the effort and say, Thank god. It’s good, sloshy fun, with the exact right proportions. The hero (Paul Rudd) has a personality. The villain (Corey Stoll) is loathsome without being over-the-top about it. The supporting black and Latino characters are stereotypes but played by energetic, charismatic actors (T.I. and Michael Peña). And there’s a bite-size, perfectly basic caper plot and effects and art design that feel sprung from dreams. Some of my initial resistance to Ant-Man had to do with the movie’s troubled provenance. It’s a Marvel title that Peyton Reed stepped in to direct after the departure of Edgar Wright, who keeps a writing credit. When a solid but nondescript director replaces a stylish one, you fear blandness. But this movie has a real personality.
Rudd plays Scott Lang, a professional thief in San Francisco, who winds up helping old, affluent scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) prevent his protégé, Darren Cross (Stoll), from doing terrible things with a special suit that allows the wearer to shrink down to a bug-size super-soldier. Pym has a suit of his own, which he gives to Lang. With the help of Pym’s envious daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, who, in a pageboy, doesn’t look a day over Barbara Hershey), Pym trains Lang to break into his lab, which Cross controls, and dismantle the new suit. And that is mercifully that.
But a lot happens, often with ingenuity. Peña plays an ex-con and Lang’s roommate, and he gets a couple of terrific “my cousin told me” montages to narrate, in which different Latino characters make gossipy plot advancements while lip-syncing to Peña’s voice. It’s like a memory of a music video. What big superhero movie would have either the patience or awareness of a world outside its own for witty sequences like those? You see the backyard parties and the swagger everybody’s got, and it’s as if somebody’s thrown open a window. It works so well that you even table for another day the problem of Marvel’s ongoing marginalization of non-white characters. Once Ant-Man harnesses the suit, he winds up at a surprise location where Anthony Mackie, as Falcon, appears in what is basically a security guard job.
Nonetheless, life around a movie is still life. Or at least that’s what I told myself this time. Rudd has, at last, reeled himself back from the embitterment and smugness he’d taken on since he started working with Judd Apatow. He seems youthful and trim and happy to be here. So does Douglas, who gets to do more than be old and wise. His comic version of disgust is a new look. These were never crucial Marvel characters, but the movie’s update of the mythology and simultaneous tribute to the history the company has built count as acts of love.2
There’s a plot about Lang trying to get back into the good graces of his young daughter that’s pretty hoary. But it lets Bobby Cannavale and Judy Greer — far more him than her — in on some of the fun and leads the movie’s finale, which involves action sequences set amid the daughter’s toys. Some of the kick comes from the pleasure the filmmakers have with size and perception and physics, turning running bathwater into a tsunami and ants into Godzillas. The timing on Dan Lebental and Colby Parker Jr.’s editing, from Lang’s shrunken perspective to ours, results in some of the year’s best visual comedy. And the 3-D is the best, most committed use of the format since the last Jackass movie.
Who knows what Wright’s artistry would have made of this? But Reed and his crew do just fine. It’s annoying to think that the Marvel tractor beam is just going to suck up all of these good, well-delineated characters. Still, here in this little speck of the Disney galaxy, where cleverness and feeling are prized over bigness and brand continuity, it’s not Marvel’s universe that Ant-Man seems sprung from. It’s Pixar’s.