Trainwreck earns a lot of points simply by presenting its main character in a refreshingly different light. It has the comedic chops to keep us entertained, the quality writing to fully develop its characters, and the thoughtfulness that could make for a long-term classic. It misses that mark only because of a shaggy dog structure of the kind we’ve come to expect from director Judd Apatow. He has great instincts and a way of getting the best from his performers, but a tighter cut might have made the difference between a pretty good comedy and a great one. (That seems to be the trend these days, with Ant-Man performing a similar near-miss on the same opening day.)
The project is the brainchild of current comedic wunderkind Amy Schumer, whose material I’ve found to be hit and miss (though when she hits, it’s usually a knockout). She plays another Amy here, working as a writer for an incredibly sleazy men’s magazine and living the kind of lifestyle reserved for destitute Saudi princes. She goes through a string of booty calls and has elevated the morning-after blow-off to an art form. She drinks, she indulges in various recreational drugs and she looks skeptically at the suburban mom lifestyle of her sister (Brie Larson), which resembles a kind of living death to her.
In short, she’s a hot mess, though she’s clearly quite satisfied with her lot and the movie takes great pains not to judge any of her behavior. This in and of itself makes it notable. Trainwreck isn’t interested in moralizing. Instead, it simply wants to shake a character like this up and see how she grows in response. Change comes in the form of a high-end athletic doctor (Bill Hader), who sees who she is, loves her anyway and begins forming a meaningful relationship with her for the first time in her life. Needless to say, this kind of freaks her out, and the second-act comedic juice stems primarily from her efforts to deal with the change.
Though it follows the basic arc of most rom-coms – complete with the third-act break-up and the predictable question of whether they’ll get back together – Trainwreck legitimately tries to push the tropes in different directions. Take the question of Amy’s father (Colin Quinn), ostensibly the cause of all her bad habits. Neither Schumer nor Apatow are interested in limiting their heroine to daddy-issue clichés, and take the pains to develop their relationship into something more subtle and nuanced. She loves her father, whose MS has stuck him in a nursing home, and quietly resents her sister for leaving her with the responsibility of caring for him. He, in turn, still wants what’s best for her in his own flawed way, and watching them struggle around their wounds holds a reality that you rarely see in cinematic parent-child connections.
The same holds true with Hader, who finally finds a plum part after years of thankless supporting characters. His doctor lives in the ranks of society’s elite, but he has little real experience with relationships, and his blossoming connection to a woman who already knows who she is demonstrates just how little actual living he’s done. This helps bolster Schumer’s character as something far more than the shambling disaster she might have been, and though both halves of the central couple learn their share of Very Important Lessons, it feels more like a legitimate evolution than the hackneyed contrivance we usually see.
And while Apatow’s shambling improvisational technique makes us work hard for the laughs, they come with an agreeable amount of frequency. Schumer gets the lion’s share, of course, but a few supporting figures come dangerously close to stealing the show: notably Tilda Swinton, pulling another chameleon act as Amy’s horrid boss, and LeBron James, as good a sport as you’re likely to see as a penny-pinching version of himself.
The pieces were there for real brilliance, and indeed, the only thing stopping it is its essentially wandering nature. Trainwreck can’t stay focused on its job long enough to realize its potential, preferring to remain agreeably vague rather than sharp and on-task. It matches its main character in that way, and clearly that’s Apatow’s comfort zone. But it makes the film’s quiet brilliance harder to find, and forces us to sit through more dead air than we should. What might have been a game changer becomes simply a better-than-average rom-com: a noble effort to be sure but one that leaves a little too much potential untapped.