If you’ve seen Spy with Melissa McCarthy, you’re already aware that the movie nails its first big laugh—the sneezing-assassin joke—within moments of the opening credits. Even if you know it’s coming, the timing is just right. And right away you think: There. Thank you. These people know what they’re doing.
How often does that thought run through your mind in a mainstream commercial comedy? Not often enough. It didn’t happen with Ted 2, which may be a moderate box-office success, but it’s a weak, vaguely smelly sequel.
I bring up these movies in order to give Trainwreck, written by and starring Amy Schumer, its full, brash, often riotous due.
At the risk of raising expectations, the first few scenes are among the best director Judd Apatow has ever done, in or out of the The 40-Year-Old Virgin/Knocked Up universe of arrested-development guydom. Trainwreck hails from the universe next door: arrested-development, female division. Schumer plays a fictionalized variation on herself, also named Amy, or more accurately a variation on the stand-up and Inside Amy Schumer Comedy Central personae that have carried Schumer to her current showbiz location.
The opening flashback sequence features Colin Quinn explaining to his two preteen daughters the futility and frustration of monogamy. Her childhood established in quick, deft expositional strokes—divorced parents; deceased mother; unrepentant horndog father afflicted with multiple sclerosis—we travel forward with Schumer’s Amy to the present. Her zesty, boozy, emotionally guarded love life includes more sex than love, but she doesn’t mind. Does she?
At any rate, she does not like her men to sleep over. (In one stand-up routine, Schumer joked that she slept in the position of a swastika, requiring the entire bed.) Our guide to Manhattan romance writes for a sub-Cosmo magazine called S’Nuff, edited by a ferociously egocentric boss played by a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton. The plot of Trainwreck is simple. Amy’s assigned to profile a successful Manhattan sports medicine specialist, Aaron, played by Bill Hader. One abrupt but highly promising sleepover later, Aaron’s convinced they should date. Amy resists. The movie cooks up some conflict to divide these lovers for a while, around the two-thirds point, before Amy reckons with her more destructive and immature instincts.
The movie wouldn’t be much fun without them, of course. Trainwreck is all kinds of funny, and like any talent showcase worth its salt, the tone of the humor adjusts to suit the talents onscreen. Early on there’s a bit where Amy falls asleep immediately after a drunken orgasm, and it’s pricelessly managed. Aaron’s friend and confidant is LeBron James, portraying a penny-pinching, Downton Abbey version of himself. When these two have a heart-to-heart on the basketball court, it comes during the most lopsided game of one-on-one in history.
Brie Larson plays Amy’s married sister, whose agreeable low hum of a marriage (Mike Birbiglia plays her sweet husband) is everything Amy rejects. The sister relationship feels plausible and lived-in. So does the match of Schumer and Hader, both of whom take the opportunity afforded by Trainwreck to do the subtlest work of their careers.
Apatow generally has trouble with his wrap-ups, and the final third or so of Trainwreck feels longish and full of detours. Several scenes (Amy’s subway encounter with a hostile passenger; an intervention scene featuring sports announcer Marv Albert) were asking to be cut. The climactic hookup scene, with Amy on the rebound with a magazine colleague, comes from a different film entirely. (Chris Rock’s Top Five had similar issues with its swings from dry observation to a meaner, homophobic brand of slapstick.)
The laughs in Trainwreck may come with an apology (the character describes herself as “broken”), but you believe the character’s transformation by romantic love, chiefly because Schumer and Hader are wonderful together. Gender inequity in the world of comedy deserves all the overdue attention it’s getting, and more. But there are matters of craft, wit (no matter how crude the jokes) and timing that transcend chromosomes. In Trainwreck, when Amy is about to vomit while watching a surgical procedure from behind a glass wall, the bit is so carefully calibrated, and so aptly filmed in long shot, with precisely the right amount of fake puke, you think: These people know what they’re doing.
Trainwreck (R): ★★★★✩