AUSTIN – While it was introduced as a work in progress, Judd Apatow's new film “Trainwreck” looked pretty much locked and ready to release when it played on Sunday afternoon at the Paramount.
Since “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” was released, Judd Apatow's filmography has been made up exclusively of films he wrote, many of which felt very personal. “This Is 40” felt to me like a summation of a lot of those ideas and themes, and I'm glad he took some time to decide how to follow that film. “Trainwreck” was written by Amy Schumer, and her voice runs clearly through every part of this movie. What Judd's done here, and it's not as easy as it sounds, is turned his own considerable success into a shield he could use to protect Schumer and guarantee that her voice reached the screen intact. As a result, “Trainwreck” is lacerating, smart, heartfelt, and raw, and for a big studio comedy, it makes some very strong points about the small ways we punish ourselves and sabotage our own happiness.
If you were familiar with Schumer's stand-up work before she got her Comedy Central show, then you know just how scatological and brilliant she can be. She has the ability to tell the complete truth about what it's like to be a smart, funny, single sexual being in modern America, and precisely because she holds nothing back, her work can cut. With “Trainwreck,” she's written a version of herself who hasn't quite figured out who she is yet, and the film takes a very funny but ultimately honest look at what it feels like to reach a point in your life where you aren't sure what's next, but you know that it will require a very real change. It can be terrifying to fall in love, because there is a helplessness that is part of that feeling, and if there's one thing Amy Schumer is not, it is helpless.
In the film, Amy works at a magazine where they seem to have no moral quandaries about running a story like “The 10 Ugliest Celebrity Children Under 6 Years Old” or “Does garlic change the taste of semen?”, and she seems to have zero problems with that. It affords her a lifestyle that she likes. She can sleep with whoever she wants, she has a nice apartment, and she has no interest whatsoever in monogamy. The film actually opens with a very funny but also deeply sad flashback in which nine-year-old Amy (Devin Fabry) and her five-year-old sister Kim (Carla Oudin) learn that monogamy is a lie from their father Gordon (Colin Quinn) as his way of explaining divorce to them. The jokes all land in that scene, but it made me sad because of just how much trust children place in us, and how often our own selfish choices resonate through their entire lives. Grown-up Kim (Brie Larson) seems more than happy to settle into a life with Tom (Mike Birbiglia) and her step-son Allister (Evan Brinkman), and she can't help but judge the way Amy lives her life.
When Amy is assigned to write a profile on a sports doctor named Aaron (Bill Hader), she doesn't want to do it because she hates sports. Almost immediately, though, there is real chemistry between them. Aaron's the kind of guy who works hard, who does charity work for Doctors Without Borders, and who seems almost unaware of what a great catch he is. He and Amy sleep together, and in her world, that's the end of things. She is shocked when Aaron calls and wants to see her again, and they fall into an actual relationship.
In some ways, “Trainwreck” follows the general model of the modern romantic comedy, but Schumer's script inverts the tropes in very sly ways. Take LeBron James, for example. He's got a major supporting role as Aaron's friend, and I could watch a six hour film of nothing but LeBron and Hader playing one-on-one like they do in one scene here. In essence, because of the perspective shift here, Hader is playing the role that would normally be the female lead in terms of dynamic, which means LeBron James is playing the chatty best friend who offers advice and a shoulder to cry on. And the damnedest thing is how naturally he steps into the role. He is hilarious in the movie, and the entire film is filled with scene-stealers. Schumer knows the value of having everyone in the film look good and not just her, and she gives others room to shine. John Cena, who I don't normally think of as someone who performs comedy, has a very funny role as Amy's semi-occasional kind-of boyfriend. SNL's Vanessa Bayer gets a lot of mileage out of her smile and her inability to hide it, while Tilda Swinton seems to relish playing the morally horrible editor of the magazine where Amy works. Actors like Dave Attell, Randall Park, Jon Glaser, Ezra Miller, Norman Lloyd, Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei, Nikki Glaser, Method Man, Mathew Broderick, Leslie Jones, and even Marv freakin' Albert all show up and kill, and the film is better for it.
Even if you're pretty sure you know where “Trainwreck” is going, it's the way Schumer opts for the honest over the easy in every scene that makes this one count. This film doesn't make any excuses for Amy's worst behavior. Instead, it offers up the revolutionary idea that even if we are weak or bruised or broken in some fundamental way, we still deserve love, and we can change. We can invite the right things into our lives, and we can opt to shut out the truly destructive. Watching Amy struggle with the choices she's making in the film, I found that it didn't matter to me whether or not she ends up with Aaron. What mattered was seeing Amy stop hurting herself emotionally as a way of keeping the world at arm's length. It is a miracle that any of us ever find someone else in this world worth holding onto, and when it does happen, it is a sin to let that opportunity pass. There are so many reasons we can give ourselves for why we should deny ourselves the highs and the lows of real love, not least of which is fear. When Amy starts to realize what Aaron means to her, she gets ready to run, gets ready to burn it all down right away because she knows that she'll do it eventually. She is willing to tank the relationship simply to avoid the pain of tanking the relationship, and that drive can be very real in people. What's harder is steering directly into that fear and refusing to let it stop you from doing something that can change your whole life. “Trainwreck” is all about finding that courage and overcoming your own programming because it is important.
Schumer is not just deadly funny in the film. She's got real chops as an actor, and there is some very real material that she gets to play. It helps that Brie Larson's playing her sister, because I think Larson may be incapable of giving a bad performance. Hader also helps as he keeps getting better and better, revealing more and more of his talent. He manages to ground Aaron and make him feel very real while also continually scoring joke after joke. Even more annoying is how easy he makes it all seem.
“Trainwreck” marks a turning point for Judd Apatow, and if this next run of movies is about collaboration with strong comic voices, directing as a way of preventing studio interference, then I think we're going to see some very special films as a result. Apatow is a fantastic audience, one of the most important things when directing comedy, and there are more successful jokes per minute in this film than in most studio comedies in any year. Here's hoping Schumer has plenty more to share with us in the future, and that “Trainwrecks” leads even more people to discovering her show. Schumer is willing to bleed for her work, an artist who digs deep and who is unafraid of just how afraid she is. “Trainwreck” is more than funny. It's also wise, and that hard-won wisdom makes this a can't-miss for anyone who feels bruised by love, but never beaten.
“Trainwreck” is in theaters July 17, 2015.