The Moralistic Mistakes of Trainwreck

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I saw Trainwreck the weekend it came out. For me, it was one of the most anticipated films of the year. When the day came to see it, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one hyped for it. Showings for the film that night were sold out in two of the AMC theaters in lower Manhattan. I recall vividly how my friend group and I power walked from theater to theater, trying to find a showing with available seats. I’d assumed it would be popular, but it never occurred me to buy my tickets in advance for summer rom-com. By the time we got into a showing, we were elbow to elbow in a full auditorium.

It was exhilarating to watch a film surrounded by women. I’d had similar experiences seeing the Twilight films, Magic Mike and Bridesmaids. The influence of Bridesmaids in terms of the development of Trainwreck cannot be overstated—it ushered in an era where powerful white men in Hollywood like Judd Apatow and Paul Feig put their money and time into creating film and television that centered (white) women. And yet, it has always been clear that films aimed at women and girls with any indication of quality had the potential to fill a house. It’s easy to hype up and underserved market (and studios have capitalized on that by trying to sell us half-baked films like Bad Moms and Rough Night).

When Trainwreck was released, I turned 23. I was a year into my graduate education and a year into living in New York City for the first time. I’d lived on my own in Georgia for years prior, but the move to the Big Apple was especially huge for me. I’d spent my first two drinking years formatively drowning my sorrows and anxieties, but New York City was an even bigger opportunity to fall into some harmless hedonism. I drank most nights after classes, got high with strangers, and went home with anyone I could still stand by the end of the night. During all that time I was still in school (and doing well), working multiple jobs, and sending money back home to my family when I could manage it. Whether or not I was “out of control” depends entirely on your values. My drinking and sleeping around rarely impeded on any of the things I needed to have done.

One thing I always loved about Amy Schumer was how casually she talked about drinking and hook-ups. I loved how calm she was about it and how she didn’t talk about her behavior like it was a shameful thing. I had a somewhat conservative upbringing—highly influenced by my Jamaican parents and suffocating religious values as well as the general family-and-home traditional air of my pocket of Southern society. I was socialized to feel guilty about everything, even if I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. There was something freeing about Schumer’s stand-up. She was funny, unapologetically “slutty” and just thick enough for me to be able to somewhat project myself onto her.

When I saw the trailers for Trainwreck, I got really excited. My hope for the film is that it would show a partying lifestyle with no shame and that somehow the love story wouldn’t fall into the familiar trope of a “good guy” “taming” a “bad woman”. The “meeting her match” plot doesn’t have to be about a man coming into a woman’s life and making her change everything.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it was. Trainwreck is a film about a hard-partying young woman (Amy Schumer, named Amy Townsend in the film) who has daddy issues and is jealous of her sister (Brie Larson) for living a conventional suburban life—something she secretly believes she can’t have. Instead of making a film about an unapologetically fun and sex-positive woman falling genuinely in love, Schumer and director Judd Apatow made a film that slides effortlessly in his previously male-centric canon: It’s a story about someone who feels that upper-middle class pull to suburbia despite the fear that it may stifle their freedom and make them unhappy. It’s the moral backbone to films like Knocked Up which seems to glorify settling and The 40-Year-Old Virgin which seems to imply that true adulthood is only reached by violently casting aside all childish and nerdy things because no potential wife would ever like them. These films are still very funny, but there’s no denying the traditionalist values at their backbone. It had been my assumption that Apatow had closed the book on these kinds of stories with the painfully autobiographical and covertly horrific This is 40, but it appears he’s still chugging along revisiting the same themes—even when working with younger, female collaborators.

Which brings me to the main problem of Trainwreck—there is nothing wrong with how Amy lives her life. She’s good at her job, has enough money to pay the rent, and always practices safe sex. Trainwreck isn’t about her dealing with health issues or trying to come up from rock bottom. It isn’t even about her learning how to balance her career with her partying. All of those things were presumably figured out before the start of the film. Her trouble at her job seems largely due to the unprofessional and morally bankrupt nature of her workplace.

So, what is the real conflict of Trainwreck? Amy wrestling with the heteronormative, white, upper-middle class American dream—a husband, a house and kids. Amy isn’t actually a bad person. Everyone treats her like one, but their harsh judgement outweighs any of her actual behavior. The way that the film seems to hate her for living her life and having fun is disturbing. Sure she’s rude and tends to isolate herself, but those traits aren’t necessarily an indictment of her character. The film also seems to skirt around what seems to really be going on: She’s depressed and worried that it’s because she idolizes her father’s individualist lifestyle too much. Indeed, Amy’s relationship with her father (Colin Quinn) seems to be only thing that the filmmakers really thought out. But instead of a true confrontation of those issues the film takes the easy way out by having him pass away in the second act.

I understand how her father’s death works in terms of driving the plot—it fractures her relationship with her sister and intensifies her emotional dependency on her boyfriend Aaron (Bill Hader). But this character transition implies something else. Namely, that Aaron is now serving as a replacement father figure for Amy. In the theater it didn’t quite come together for me, but I had a sense that something was off. Upon a second viewing at home, it struck me immediately. This awkward replacement-father subtext is further driven home by the fact that Schumer and Bill Hader don’t quite work. I think they are both attractive people and the idea of Hader being a romantic lead really excited me, but he and Schumer just don’t gel together. Their interactions are that an older chaperone and reckless young charge. This only adds to the oddly patriarchal glaze that holds the film back from truly resonating as a love story.

This imbalance is highlighted in the awards scene, the late-night fight, the surgery cancellation and the subsequent breakup. These scenes are supposed to lead to Amy’s turning point as a character, but they only work if you believe she is actually at fault. Amy answers her phone during the ceremony because her boss is calling her and she knows her job is in danger. She misses Aaron’s speech because she’s worried about being fired. She smokes a joint because she’s anxious. She tries to avoid fighting with Aaron because she needs space and knows he has somewhere to be in the morning. He insists on fighting and refuses to call it for the night on many occasions when he could have. The fact that he is too tired to perform his surgery his fault, but the film hinges on the audience seeing it as a result of Amy’s recklessness. Aaron’s desire to hash thing out that night is framed as the adult thing to do—it’s only rendered childish with the involvement of Amy who is clearly frustrated with work, the death of her father and Aaron’s condescending attitude towards her.

If I were to try to further pinpoint the issue, I would posit this: This seems to be a case of a woman writing a self-deprecating script and a male director taking that self-deprecation and making it fact. Schumer’s script seems to have much more empathy for its male characters and perhaps a male director simply couldn’t see that imbalance. The film frames Amy as a troubled woman who needs guidance, and Aaron as the more adult father-figure substitute who gives it to her. The only character in the film that seems to realize that Aaron is flawed and made glaring mistakes in the relationship is his best friend Lebron James (who is the best part of the film).

Still, because of this imbalance, because Trainwreck frames the narrative as everyone against Amy, Aaron is left completely off the hook. The film doesn’t seem to be aware enough to understand that it was Aaron who needed to apologize to Amy at the end of the film and not the other way around. Not only is marriage framed as the “main event” of life in the narrative, it seems to imply that marriage for Amy will be about her yielding to disapproving man who wants her to change who she is to be a “proper” partner, even when his “adult” insights are wrong.

I enjoy marking time through my movie theater experiences—it helps me remember where I’ve been. Trainwreck was somewhat of a touchstone of my life. I saw it when I was the most extreme version of myself. As I approach 26, that time in my life oddly feels far away. I look back at that time and have no regrets, and I would hope that when I begin my 30s I won’t punish myself for meaningless things like how much sex I had and how many shots of tequila I downed in a single sitting. I lived, I had fun, and I met interesting people. And if I ever do settle down, I hope it’s because I want to, and not because I shamed into doing so by some man or woman who feels like they need to get me “under control.”

I thought it important to revisit Trainwreck in light of the continuous criticism of Amy Schumer for her thoughtless comments, racism, and the recent “discourse” over her upcoming film I Feel Pretty (which feels… extra). Though I will concede that starring in Snatched was a really, really bad idea. Still, I’ve never had it in me to hate her. For every Amy Schumer, there are a hundred white male comics who have said worse and gotten a fraction of the backlash. As a comedian, I’ve gone to many shows and open mics where I’ve heard guys work out their rape jokes or “ironic” racist material. Schumer’s more unsavory material and behavior is part of a much larger problem with white entertainers, and I’d rather address the problem as a whole rather than make her the face of the issue. I’m not invested in dragging her, and frankly I’m irritated that I’m expected to be. I don’t feel the need to constantly affirm my politics through unrelenting nastiness towards “problematic” people. That’s just not where I want to put my energy.

I wanted to talk about the failure of this film as a work of art, and how it was perhaps prophetic in predicting how we would later see Amy Schumer and critique her limited worldview. There are things to like about the film—the cast is talented and there are some genuinely sweet moments throughout. Schumer shows surprising emotional range that I’d love to see more of in the future. But Trainwreck is probably not a film I’ll be curling up on the couch with my girlfriends and watching ten years down the line. And it’s not because Amy Schumer isn’t funny or because Bill Hader isn’t hot (which is apparently an opinion some people have). Trainwreck fails because it doesn’t seem to like women very much. It fails to have fun and bask in the messier parts of young womanhood. It’s much too invested in punishing its main character to achieve that. And that’s a shame.

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One comment

  1. Yes! This hits the nail on the head on what was bugging me about this film. I remember this was my first experience of Amy Schumer (I’m from the UK) and I’m really pleased that at least this film prompted me to seek out her (much funnier) stand up. It stuck in my mind for ages after I left the cinema because it was baffling to me, I felt like it was trying to have its cake and eat it too…and then make fun of whoever ate the cake. It made more sense when I saw it was directed by Judd Apatow because it felt like it was trying to be for women in their 20’s, what Bridesmaids was to women in their 30’s.

    Like

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