Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Mike Birbiglia, Jon Glaser, Vanessa Bayer, Ezra Miller, LeBron James
Running Time: 124 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
It's easy to assume you have Judd Apatow's Trainwreck all figured out before even seeing it. It'll be an uncomfortable, awkward mixture of comedy and drama with some toilet humor thrown in, eventually culminating in an unlikable, emotionally arrested protagonist learning to grow up. And since it's an Apatow production, there's always the chance it'll take thirty minutes longer to arrive at that revelation than it should. In the best case scenario, that would be just over two hours, or in the worst case, closer to two and a half. While those details do prove correct, there's something very different about the execution this time, resulting is his most purely satisfying effort in a while.
After essentially repeating the same formula that worked in the 40-Year-Old Virgin, but grew progressively worse with Knocked Up, Funny People and This is 40, Apatow finally nails it. Maybe it's the absence of
autobiographical subject matter or a willingness to relinquish his desire to be the next James L. Brooks, but he's delivered a movie that stands out from his others. But you have to figure the real difference maker is Amy Schumer, who in her first big screen starring role proves she's more than deserving of all the hype surrounding her.
The film opens with a flashback in which a young Amy and her sister Kim are told their parents are divorcing, and warned by their drunken, philandering, Mets obsessed father, Gordon (Colin Quinn) on the dangers of monogamy. Flash forward twenty-three years and an adult Amy (Schumer) has internalized that advise, regularly smoking, drinking and sleeping around with guys like gym rat, Steven (John Cena) in order to escape the possibility of an actual adult relationship. Meanwhile, Kim (Brie Larson) has done the exact opposite, settling down with Tom (Mike Birbiglia) a dorky, if generally decent guy with an equally nerdy son Amy finds annoying.
It's Amy's intense dislike of sports that causes her intimidating editor at S'nuff men's magazine, Dianna (Tilda Swinton), to assign her a piece on renowned sports surgeon, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader.), who spends most of his free time hanging with best friend LeBron James (as "himself") and is currently preparing for a major surgery on Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire (himself again). With a promotion on the line and her father recently admitted to a nursing home, Amy hasn't a clue what to do when she actually starts dating and falling for a genuinely good guy who really likes her, faults and all. So, of course, she does her best to sabotage it, not realizing the person she's hurting most is herself.
This is a comedy that gets a lot right, which is a big surprise considering how much it's attempting to do at once, and how shaky Apatow's previous attempts at juggling this type of material have been. Helping is a really strongly defined character at the movie's center, which is evident immediately upon her introduction in the first few minutes. There's no doubt Amy likes to have fun, and it's interesting to note that when she wakes up in some random guy's bed completely hung over without a clue where she is, we realize this isn't a scene we'd even wince at if the protagonist were male. Schumer (who penned the script) and Apatow know this and are always a few steps ahead of our thinking she's a slut by having her admit to being one with little hesitation and no regrets.
I know very little, if anything, about Amy Schumer other than the fact that she has a show on Comedy Central a lot of people love that's supposedly dirtier and more controversial than this. That her casting was met with groans that she's not "hot enough" for the role is an especially bizarre complaint considering this isn't exactly the kind of female part we frequently see. Schumer makes it soar, hilariously transforming what should be detestable character traits into relatable, often painfully sympathetic quirks. She's also able to switch gears on a dime between the laugh-out-loud scenes and some of the more serious, soul-searching moments which are thankfully never all that serious in her hands.
The movie's secret weapon is Hader, would seem to be as atypical a choice as Schumer to lead a romantic comedy, which makes him an inspired choice, while marking sort of a divergence from the goofball characters he's known for playing since his SNL days. She's not as funny without Hader's straight man to play off and if the running joke is that Aaron's supposed to be boring, than it would be tough to find another actor who makes boring as interesting. Similar to Schumer, audiences will walk away from this experience with a higher opinion of his acting talents than when they went in, potentially opening the door to different types of roles we can picture him in.
What separates this from other entries in an increasingly popular comedy subgenre is that this is actually invested in exploring what's behind Amy's behavior, while still consistently eliciting laughs doing it. She's on a journey with a very clear end point but the plot doesn't feel as forced or telegraphed as usual does because the writing and acting are so strong. It's the little details that count, such as the hilarious workplace scenes where we get to see an unrecognizable, but delightfully evil Tilda Swinton endorse one ridiculous story idea after another, as Amy and her hapless co-workers (played by Vanessa Bayer, Randall Park and Jon Glaser) sweat with fear. Or how John Cena's musclehead character becomes a little too boyfriend-like for Amy to handle. Even a sub-plot involving Ezra Miller's overeager intern that has no business working, somehow pays off hilariously.
Every scene with LeBron and Bill Hader's Aaron, specifically those involving the world's highest paid athlete stiffing the latter with every bill. It's worth noting that Cena and especially LeBron's roles are almost ridiculously substantial compared to what would be expected of them. Neither necessarily feels like stunt casting and both end up excelling in supporting parts that don't ask too much of them and actually serve a function in the story. The real celebrity stunt casting actually comes at the end, and it's so random and unexpected that it rightfully earns some of the film's biggest laughs.
Colin Quinn playing Amy's ailing father in a nursing home while looking exactly like his 56-year-old self is definitely a head-scratcher that strangely serves to make an already hilarious performance seem that much funnier. At worst, Quinn's trademark sarcasm and deadpan delivery is put to such excellent use that it's difficult to even notice or care that he's playing someone nearly two decades older. As Kim, Brie Larson is given a slightly undeveloped role she still manages to still do a lot with, allowing us to see through her how Amy turned into such a disaster. And as her oddly matched husband, the loony Birbiglia unexpectedly steals most of the scenes he's in.
Despite employing the usual Apatow tricks, the movie never forces us to like Amy. We just do, and that's all Schumer. The running joke will be that this is really a guy's part since Hollywood dictates only they can struggle with the issues she does here. It's almost impossible to watch without thinking her script's really on to something that hasn't been publicly acknowledged, at least on the big screen. In finally figuring out how to effectively juggle comedy and drama, without giving audiences a headache, Apatow does creep over the two-hour mark, if just barely. But this time it doesn't feel like a drag or mishmash of tones. The only quibble might be the ending, as it's difficult not to wish for a conclusion a little less pat, and maybe a bit more ambiguous or edgier. But that may have been asking too much. As it stands, Trainwreck is the kind of movie we all not so secretly wish Woody Allen could still make, even when it's poking fun at him.