Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Trainwreck

Alternate Title:  Truth in Advertising

One sentence synopsis:     A woman whose life consists of one night stands and casual relationships tries to clean up her act after falling for a sports doctor she was assigned to interview.


Things Havoc liked:  I don't go to see a lot of romantic comedies. It's not a genre I chase down when I have the chance. If I'm being blatantly honest, I don't really know why that is. Yes, most romantic comedies are stupid, shallow, vapid, and borderline offensive, but those terms also describe a number of genres that I do like, so perhaps it's just a matter of not having any major milestone films to compare them to. An action movie that I sit down to see is going to be measured in terms of the giants of the genre, the Aliens, the Terminator 2s, (the Mad Maxes), whereas I've never been fan enough of Sleepless in Seattle or whatever the stalwarts of rom-coms are supposed to be to properly evaluate modern renditions with the classics of yesteryear. But with the September Slump having pushed into August this year, and precious little available to see, I was prevailed upon to take a shot at the latest offering from Judd Apatow.

You all know who Judd Apatow is, don't you? I do, and I go to see Rom-coms about as often as I check out polemical documentaries on the evils of sheep. The king of "Bromantic comedy", writer and/or director of everything from Pineapple Express to The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Funny People, Adam Sandler's last watchable movie, Apatow is one of the reigning High Lords of Comedy nowadays, having somehow caused Bridesmaids to become the biggest R-rated comedy ever (Lord only knows how). Yet rather than draw on his usual stable of Hollywood comedians like Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd, or Kristen Wiig, Apatow this time has decided to give us Comedy Central star Amy Schumer, SNL's Bill Hader, and a whole pile of major figures in sports and wrestling, presumably in the hope that some of them would be funny.

And you know what? They are. And not only that, but their presence livened the movie considerably for me, a depressingly-stereotypical heterosexual man whose appreciation for these sorts of movies is desperately limited, but who can nonetheless appreciate the automatic comedy potential that comes from having a film in which LeBron James plays the role of the concerned friend who doesn't want to see his fragile buddy's heart broken and who stages interventions alongside Matthew Broderick and Marv Albert (I have no explanation) to get the struggling couple back together. These kinds of funny celebrity not-cameos are the sorts of things The Rock used to do all the time (Be Cool was a good example), back before he graduated into a full-fledged actor, sequences where the punch line was that someone like The Rock was acting like a gay narcissist, or a nanny, or something else un-macho. This time we have LeBron complaining that his best buddy Bill Hader isn't keeping up with Downton Abbey, and that he may have to watch it without him. We have Knicks star Amar'e Stoudemire stumbling out of his rehab hospital in an anesthesia-ed stupor because he suddenly realizes that his doctor is running on caffeine fumes before his major knee surgery. We have John Cena, of all people, cast as the meatheaded-but-sensitive boyfriend of the protagonist whose dedication to the gym may be covering for latent homosexual tendencies. All of these are funny ideas, but the surprising thing is that all of the above non-actors are really good at milking the comedy prospects out of them. LeBron, for instance, has a standout scene wherein he and Hader play pickup, half-court basketball while discussing Hader's relationship problems, a sort of scene even I've seen a hundred times in the movies, save that this time the best bud is LeBron James, the greatest basketball player in the world, and the match is allowed to go approximately the way any contest between LeBron James and an SNL comic would naturally go, all without anyone ever acknowledging that anything is strange. Cena, meanwhile, the most popular WWE wrestler in the world (and the record-holder for Make-A-Wish Doundation's pledges fulfilled), goes much further than I would have expected any wrestler to go in making fun of himself, not only appearing as a possibly-gay, 'roided-out gym-fanatic with some of the best lines in the movie ("I look like if Mark Wahlberg ate Mark Wahlberg"), but starring in sex scenes where he can't perform without chanting iron-pumping slogans. And yet what other movie, given a target as over-the-top as John Cena, would have the guts to cast him, despite his pretensions and ridiculousness, as the manifest good guy in a relationship dispute with the main character of the film?

The whole movie, in fact, is filled with this sort of thing, light touches from a highly experienced director who knows how to ring situational comedy out of the slightest deviation from normal reality. Schumer works at a TMZ-style gossip magazine called S'nuff, whose writers sit around pitching ever-more debased concepts to one another and to their boss, played by the incomparably weird Tilda Swinton (whom I misidentified as "that woman whose name I don't know who looks a lot like Tilda Swinton"). "The ugliest celebrity children under 6" is the sort of depraved article I could absolutely see appearing on some kind of Gawker-analogue. Schumer's brother-in-law and nephew (the former played by Mike Birbiglia, who may one day find forgiveness for Sleepwalk With Me) ride the fine line between real-life awkward and only-in-movies awkward. The film even takes the time to introduce Schumer's ever-philandering, vaguely homophobic-and-racist father, played by Colin Quinn, who despite all of the above is very funny as a prototypical New York asshole, albeit far too young to credibly play a nursing home resident alongside Norman Lloyd, who is 100 years old, and still has his comedic timing. All in all, the movie is comprised entirely of these nice, subtle comic touches, ones not everyone will necessarily get (a gag involving a bunch of Jets fans asking Hader who his sports patients are had me laughing out loud even as the rest of the theater stared at me in confusion). I would expect nothing less from Judd Apatow at this point.


Things Havoc disliked:  So... given all that, why didn't I like this movie much?

It's not that I hated it, for I didn't, but for the amount of effort Apatow spends trying to get me specifically to like his movie, I walked out of the theater surprisingly cold to the entire effort. And the reason for that is not the direction or the cameos or the sense of humor or the secondary characters or anything else. The reason for that was Amy Schumer.

Now please don't get me wrong, I didn't think Schumer did badly in this movie. She acts decently well, even when the script calls for sincerity and dramatic weight, something which would cause most hipster-comedians to run screaming out the door. I don't know anything of Schumer's previous body of work, and I don't know what her reputation is as a comedian, but I do know that the character she plays in this film, a role she plays with a fair degree of skill I should add, is an awful, awful person, and I simply wanted her to go away.

I can hear the objections already. "Of course she's an awful person, the movie is called 'Trainwreck'! It's a redemption story!" All true, but all beside the point. The film has her treat everyone she knows, her initial boyfriend (Cena), her newly-acquired boyfriend, her sister and her family, everyone meaningful, with insouciant disconcern bordering on contempt. This is fine, comedies are often about awful people after all, but most of the time, those comedies are not also asking the audience to identify with the awful person in question, at least not through their entire runtime. Identifying with a flawed character is one thing, but an inveterate shithead is another, and this character strikes that chord with almost contemptuous ease. Accusing her sister of being an insensitive bitch who hated her father at the old man's funeral while relentlessly mocking her sister's son and husband to their faces for being awkward, treating her putative boyfriend's job (sports medicine) as a stupid joke and mocking the very notion that sports should matter to anyone, passive-aggressively treating anyone who criticizes her like a shallow, stupid, inferior person who is clearly intimidated by her awesomeness, none of these are game-breaking traits necessarily if the movie were to frame the character fairly, but it does not. Not at all.

What do I mean? The movie keeps to a fairly normal rom-com style of reality, wherein strange and quirky things happen, but nothing in the realm of absolute impossibility. I can see LeBron James hanging out with his favorite sports doctor and doling out relationship advice after all, in between losing NBA Finals games (I kid, don't hurt me!). But periodically throughout the film, characters, and even the entire feel of the movie shift wildly into the realm of ludicrous parody so that the main character can be forgiven of slights that would otherwise be unforgivable. Her sister, the one with the weird family, a character established as having her life at least somewhat together, and having a much deeper respect for the concept of family in general, just so happens to decide, apropos of nothing, to wantonly destroy their father's collection of sports memorabilia and sent her text messages about putting the old man in a worse nursing home (not a "cheaper" one, a "worse" one). Nevermind that the old man is a homophobic racist who insulted her son in public and drove her out of the room in tears, nevermind that Amy herself heaps nothing but scorn on the concept of sport, this gives Amy "permission" to act unforgivably to her and then expect to be forgiven. Similarly, Tilda Swinton, as Amy's boss, plays a character beamed in seemingly from Mars, a raving sociopath, utterly at odds with the tenor of the movie, who tells Amy at one point that the best way to grieve is to simply not do so. I love Tilda Swinton, I'm on record a hundred times saying that, but her character is thunderously at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie, which would be fine if the reason she was included wasn't to offer an excuse for the main character to act like a shithead. The "crisis" of the film (all Rom-coms have the same structure) is provided by Swinton calling Schumer with the most ludicrous, unacceptable demands possible in the middle of one of the only moments where she is required to provide support to someone else. Despite being established as a fiery, don't-give-a-shit sort of person, she acquiesces immediately to running off and leaving her partner in the lurch without a word, something she now has an "excuse" for. Nevermind that she stays away afterwards and smokes pot instead of even trying to explain herself.  Nevermind that the film lets her spin the resulting argument around to make the other guy look like the asshole for demanding to know what happened.  We deus ex'ed up a reason for the character to act like a shithead, therefore you, the audience, are required to like her.


Final thoughts:  I want to stress that none of this is Amy Schumer's fault, at least not as an actress. She plays the character as the script calls for her to play the character, and does a fine and defensible job at doing so, even when the script demands that she put actual pathos into her acting, something a lot of comics more storied than her have repeatedly demonstrated that they cannot do. No, the fault of this glaring flaw is due to the writer of this movie, a woman named Amy... Schumer...

... huh. Okay then. That may explain a few things.

Psychoanalysis aside, Trainwreck is not a bad movie, nor, judging by the reactions it has gotten, is it a movie that will appeal to nobody. But there is always a risk in romantic films that when one character asks the other (as they do in this film), why they or anyone could possibly want them, that the audience will find themselves asking the same question. The main character of a movie like this does not have to be a good person, or all that likeable, but there must be something to convince us as viewers that we should indeed invest ourselves in this character's success, either because we like them or identify with them or both. The film never convinced me to make this leap, and in consequence never succeeded in convincing me that I was watching a happy ending at all. Perhaps I'm simply allergic to the pathologically passive-aggressive, or perhaps the pre-emptive hate mail I got for this review (It is not 'slut-shaming' to suggest that someone who lies to her partner while cheating on him with a dozen other people is an asshole, people) poisoned me on the concept. But while I'm not about to launch moral crusades about how this movie is evil, there is a core of bitter entitlement to it that I find most unpleasant to be around.

Some movies are bad, and some are good, but some are films that, for better or worse, I just didn't like that much. I won't go so far as to call Trainwreck bad. But I won't be bringing it up again as some hallmark of the comedic arts.


Final Score:  5/10


Next Time:  Another Guest Review!  This time by a man who chose... poorly.

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