Let’s cut to the chase and call Trainwreck what it is: a romantic comedy. Yes, those are real tears rolling down Amy Schumer’s face as she delivers a eulogy that’s awkward in a bad way; and yes, that’s a real montage of she and her boyfriend cavorting through New York to the strains of Rhapsody in Blue, with the Woody Allen jab landing lightly and late; and boy, is that ever a genuine feel-good ending soundtracked (only semi-ironically) by a Billy Joel nugget from 1986.
For some fans of Schumer’s sharp Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer, this may prove to be uncanny-valley Schumer: a comic who brings all of her charm and energy, and who bumps up against some timely topics, but who keeps pulling her punches. If you’re one of the millions of Trainwreck viewers who are just meeting Schumer now, though—or if you’re one of her fans who doesn’t mind a lite laugh now and again—she’ll charm the pants off you.
Schumer—who also wrote the screenplay—plays the relatably-named Amy, who (relatably) is looking for love in New York City, but (relatably!) is afraid of commitment. She’s a “trainwreck” in her own mind because she’s unfulfilled in love and seems to drink a lot, though her drinking is purely for comic effect and she suffers only the adverse effects she consciously chooses to suffer. (When you see this “drunk” clean out all her booze and carry it away in a compact box, you may find yourself mentally comparing it with the box you’d need to hold your own domestic libation supply.)
For a trainwreck, Amy also seems to be doing pretty damn well at her high-powered journalism job: she’s an aspiring editor at a glossy lad mag where she works for a Tina Brown clone played by Tilda Swinton. When she’s assigned to profile sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader) and sparks fly, Amy has to face her fears and try to sustain the relationship without pushing him away. Sorry, did I mention this is a romantic comedy?
Judd Apatow directs Schumer’s major-studio coming out with a modesty that borders on distracting: I can’t think of the last time I saw a theatrical release that was so determinedly un-cinematic, right down to sitcom-style doop-de-do music cues between scenes. Though it will likely do well at the box office, in its heart this movie went straight to Netflix.
Schumer is often hailed for helping to reinvigorate sketch comedy, and a lot of the best bits in Trainwreck play like sketches, as simple premises (a woman wants some space in bed, a dad explains his divorce to his kids using their dolls as stand-ins for his mistresses) are pushed to heights of mounting absurdity, although they never get all that absurd. Schumer and Apatow also have a lot of fun with comic supporting characters, best of all Amy’s beefy beau John Cena and Aaron’s pal LeBron James, who plays himself in what might be the funniest pro-athlete film role since O.J. Simpson’s wheelchair rolled down the stairs of Anaheim Stadium.
To enjoy all this, though, you have to make it through the dramatic interludes, which are poorly-conceived and, at best, boring. Take that uncomfortable eulogy, for example: Amy acknowledges that her dad (Colin Quinn) was a cranky old racist who offended everyone, but then wins the mourners’ collective agreement that he was one of their favorite people. I kept waiting for that scene to turn into a satire of the fact that we keep apologizing for racist old white guys, but it didn’t: Schumer plays it straight, which is a particularly odd choice since Quinn’s racist dialogue actually isn’t funny and is offensive. At moments like that, Trainwreck feels out of its depth: taking comic archetypes seriously doesn’t automatically turn them into interesting or sympathetic characters.
In the end, though, after a largely entertaining two hours (yes, a full 124 minutes), the film climaxes in a scene that’s unapologetically contrived but that works because Schumer is just so damned charming. As the credits roll, we’re there: we’ve bought Schumer as an empathetic performer who’s ready for more than a sketch-comedy show. Here’s hoping that her next starring role will keep the cuddly, but also bring out the claws.