“Trainwreck,” the Amy Schumer movie, is hardly a revolutionary act, and that may come as a disappointment to some (and a relief to others). What it is, instead, is a very entertaining romantic comedy, conventional on the surface while standing all sorts of genre clichés and gender assumptions discreetly on their heads. Its subversions are lower-case, embedded in the laughs, but they’re there and they matter. You come out jazzed on a summer-movie high and only later realize you’ve seen the world through fresher, smarter eyes.
Schumer wrote the screenplay, but the director is Judd Apatow, and “Trainwreck” is well within the Apatovian universe of “Knocked Up” and “This Is 40” — filthy-minded humor paired, sometimes uneasily, with deep wells of feeling. That said, it’s Schumer’s show. She plays Amy Townsend, a Manhattan journalist writing for a comically horrid men’s style magazine (called S’Nuff), but she likes the gig and she likes her carousing, carefree life. She’s not “one of the guys.” She just enjoys playing the field on her own terms, and she’ll tell you so in the saltiest language imaginable. The screening I attended was packed with young women howling in comic empathy at a heroine who walks and talks it like they live it.
“Trainwreck” is about what happens when a woman like this falls in love and comes up against her fears of commitment, but it’s much more than an old Matthew McConaughey rom-com turned inside out. The heroine is assigned to write an article on an up-and-coming sports doctor named Aaron (Bill Hader), and he’s a talented, dorky sweetie-pie — the attraction is immediate and intensely pleasing to watch. Hader, a former “Saturday Night Live” stalwart, has proved in movies like “The Skeleton Twins” that there’s more to him than sketch comedy, and he anchors “Trainwreck” by making Aaron a real person, with common sense, self-deprecating wit, and a gooey romantic center. He likes to spoon after sex, and the expression on Schumer’s face when he tries — uncut panic — is comedy bliss.
What makes the movie feel sharp and new is that Schumer acknowledges the self-loathing, the self-sabotage, that can roil the psyche of even a bright, sexually powerful woman in a society that mostly values supermodels. She just plays her observations for comedy, sometimes rueful, more often outrageous, while knowing the sadness will leak through on its own. The star’s Comedy Central show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” has broken out this year with skits that call pop culture on its sexism in gut-bustingly illuminating ways; if you haven’t seen her “Twelve Angry Men” parody, in which Paul Giamatti, Jeff Goldblum, and other beleaguered jurors hash out whether Schumer’s “hot enough” for TV, pull it up on YouTube right now — it’s a formalist work of genius.
In “Trainwreck,” that daring is more subdued, subject to the commercial expectations surrounding a big-screen first-timer. Yet the reversals that Schumer plays with in love scenes and sex scenes still sting and delight. WWE wrestler John Cena plays Amy’s boyfriend when the movie begins, a muscle-bound lummox whose devotion to her is both funny and touching; when she tries to get him to talk dirty during sex, he responds with an earnest sports pep-talk that brings down the house. One of the great jokes of “Trainwreck” is that all the men in the movie are nurturers — exactly what modern women are “supposed to want” — and it does them no damn good whatsoever.
The scenes with Cena (who’s adorable) go on too long, and as congenially spiky as it is, “Trainwreck” feels padded at more than two hours. But maybe that’s the price you pay for stuffing a movie with a deep bench of talent: Colin Quinn as Amy’s reprobate father (he’s a failed nurturer), the fine young actress Brie Larson as her levelheaded sister, Shrewsbury-born comedian Mike Birbiglia as the sister’s happy blob of a husband. There are glimpses of a fake indie movie called “The Dog Walker” starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei. (“They loved it at Sundance,” says Cena.) In the S’Nuff offices are Vanessa Bayer of “SNL,” Ezra Miller (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) as a creepy intern, and, as Amy’s boss, a riotously rude British devil-editor that I only realized with a shock during the end credits was Tilda Swinton.
And let us speak for a moment of the comedy stylings of LeBron James. The basketball superstar plays himself, or this movie’s version of himself, with panache and dab timing: Aaron’s closest friend and adviser in matters of the heart, he’s also a penny-pincher and 24-7 booster for the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce. The performance is extra sauce and you’re glad for it, especially the scene where Hader and James play one-on-one and that goes exactly how you’d expect.
But “Trainwreck” is, as I said, Schumer’s show, and she carries it with such ease that you know she’s capable of greater things. She’s at the billowing crest of her first fame right now, and there will be backlash and accusations of overhype — there already are. Let the arguments be held about whether she’s “too feminist” or “not feminist enough” or co-opting this, that, or the other. Such examinations are, in part, why Schumer matters, but they’re not why she’s funny or, when you get past the surface crassness, why she’s so moving. “Trainwreck” serves as confirmation that a star is born, a seemingly average woman whose above-average superpowers include reminding us of our own. Where she goes from here should be fascinating to watch.
Watch the trailer: