It's a story we've seen countless times before: the commitment-phobic horndog who eagerly pursues one-night stands and studiously avoids serious relationships until that one perfect person comes along and changes our libidinous hero's whole outlook on life. What makes Judd Apatow's Trainwreck a little different is that it flips this formulaic story's familiar gender dynamic: this time, it's a woman enjoying a series of exotic (and not-so-exotic) sexual encounters and a man who attempts to sell her on the virtues of monogamy. Formula is formula and predictability is predictability, but Trainwreck pulls off the pretty neat trick of simultaneously feeling like every romantic comedy ever made and a fresh rebuttal to the gender-based assumptions many of those movies make.
Our modern-day libertine is Amy (Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer), a writer for a trashy Cosmopolitan-esque gossip magazine overseen by a shamelessly ruthless editor (Tilda Swinton, as unrecognizable here as she was in Snowpiercer). Amy has been assigned to write a feature on Aaron Conners (Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live), a sports physician who has developed a groundbreaking knee surgery (his work has saved the careers of multiple high-profile athletes). Amy dislikes sports, but finds Aaron charming and attractive. She quickly turns him into another of her conquests, but then something unexpected happens: Aaron falls in love with her, and she panics when she realizes that she might kinda-sorta like him, too.
Again, all of this feels pretty familiar, but Apatow and Schumer (who wrote the screenplay) consistently devote themselves to digging beneath the surface of these character types. Amy's fear of commitment isn't merely rooted in a desire to keep her sex life interesting, but also in a desire to avoid getting hurt. Her father (Colin Quinn, That's My Boy) was a serial philanderer who felt he was trapped in a loveless (or at least sexless) marriage, and Amy wants to avoid both her father's frustration and her mother's heartache. There's a lot of quiet psychological insight here: the way Amy and her sister (Brie Larson, United States of Tara) take entirely different life lessons from their childhood, they way people get illogically suspicious when a potential romantic interest seems a little too perfect, the surprising number of commonalities men and women share when it comes to relationship insecurities – it's the sort of observant, thoughtful stuff that defines much of Apatow's work.
Of course, another thing that defines Apatow's work (and Schumer's, for that matter) is an enthusiastically ribald sense of humor, and Trainwreck has that in spades. The film serves up plenty of filthy jokes, and some of them are pretty funny (there's an angrily-delivered oral sex joke that's particularly amusing), but the film's most entertaining moments tend to be less blatantly shocking: LeBron James (playing an oblivious but sweet-spirited version of himself – it just so happens that LeBron is one of Aaron's best friends) attempting to pass off Kanye West lyrics as personalized life advice, the way Schumer wrinkles her nose when confronted with the thought of doing something selfless, Hader's goofy little lovestruck grin, the embarrassed narration that appears over the film's “infatuated romance” montage, the way Swinton brings airy venom to every line she delivers. I've got nothing against filthy R-rated comedies – I've enjoyed quite a few of them – but after a decade-plus of Apatow-influenced rom-coms, the endless conversations about genitalia and bodily fluids have lost some of their gasp-inducing punch.
If you're approaching Trainwreck as a fan of Schumer's increasingly popular Inside Amy Schumer, you may be a little disappointed to discover that she's operating in a less subversive mode here. Her TV show is every bit as raunchy, but in that format the frankness is merely a small (but essential) part of her bracingly honest satire. Her sketches strike a sociopolitical nerve on a such a regular basis that the show is practically a thinkpiece factory, but Schumer's gift is her ability to speak with clarity on the issues she wishes to address without ever letting those issues dampen or deflate the jokes. She makes delivering the laughs her first priority, and her ideas hit harder as a result. There are hints of Schumer's fearlessness in Trainwreck, but her screenplay seems to recognize that a bigger audience requires something a little more palatable. The film may well turn her into a movie star (and she deserves to be one), but it's a second-tier representation of her voice. On the other hand, it's a first-rate representation of Apatow's voice.
Apatow falls prey to a few of his usual weaknesses here. The running time feels a little padded, there are too many celebrity cameos, the direction lacks much in the way of visual style, the dirty humor feels like an effort to mask the film's old-fashioned traditionalism and there are moments that feel tonally disconnected from the rest of the film (a scene involving Marv Albert seems to have been imported from a Zucker Bros. movie, while a running gag involving a pretentious indie film suggests that Apatow has never actually seen a pretentious indie film). It's a testament to his considerable gifts - his knack for drawing excellent work out of his actors, his soulfulness, his skill at balancing spontaneous improvisation with sturdy structure - that these problems don't even come close to sinking the movie.
Schumer and Hader make such a lovely onscreen couple, largely because they don't really resemble the usual couples we see in mainstream romantic comedies. They're attractive, but not in the the usual magazine-ready way. They have actual personalities, too, and Schumer's deflective jokiness contrasts nicely with Hader's charming sincerity. Yes, we're forced to endure that tiresome temporary break-up that all rom-coms seem intent on delivering, but even there, the film finds a better justification for that familiar development than most rom-coms do. It doesn't happen because some screenwriting book demands it; it's an organic moment rooted in the character development that has been done up to that point. The final scene between the two leads is the sort of nonsensically over-the-top thing that only happens in romantic comedies, but it's played with irresistible warmth – as cheesy and infectious as the Billy Joel tunes that occasionally pepper the soundtrack. It's a little disappointing that Trainwreck doesn't mess with the formula, but it sure does make the formula work.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Year: 2015