When Good Artists Make Bad Things
"Nobody deliberately starts out to make a stinker" - Producer Jerry Wald quoted in Dwight Macdonald's essay "No Art and No Box Office"
Tilda Swinton and LeBron James gave outstanding performances. It is inconceivable that anyone would ever write such a sentence. This, however, is the only positive surprise in the (ironically titled?) “Trainwreck”, Amy Schumer’s debut feature. Schumer and the director Judd Apatow are solid comedians with a track record of producing amusing material. How could such talented artists’ put their names to such a laborious, unfunny 2 hours of romantic comedy? Perhaps the answer lies in the semi-biographical plot line. The eponymous central character reenacts painful moments from her real life doppgangler’s life. All comedians mine the horror’s of family strife for laughs… in this case the tears of the clown evoke embarrassment, ennui and pity, rather than mirth. Perhaps the producers faced a large scale version of not telling a co-worker they are “sharing too much”. Conversely Ms. Schumer might be suffering a common celebrity delusion that their trauma drama’s need not be shaped in order to have resonance. The fact that this film is loosely based on Amy’s real life makes for an interesting side-light but it fails to carry the material.
The train wreck of “Trainwreck” is illustrated in the opening moments of the film. There is a funny flashback where Amy and her sister are given an explanation by the father of their parent’s divorce. Dad ends up leading the children in a chant decrying monogamy. It is wonderfully appropriately inappropriate. The choreography, however, was a stiff back and forth between father in the proscenium arch of the garage. The children are fixed as hood ornaments on a car. It was as if this moment was taken from a Television sketch comedy rather than feature film. It might have aided in the hilarious crescendo if the father was mobil and placed the children on the car. Perhaps the inclusion of actual dolls, which are referenced in the speech, might have also helped drive narrative. The father is saying to the children that it would be foolish if their mother forced exclusivity rules with their toys. An emotionally stunted man such as the father would be more likely to react to an actual doll rather than create a marriage analogy from scratch. There is a slap-dash quality to the execution. This continues in the many set-pieces centering on Amy’s absurd muscleman boyfriend. The two sequences riffing on his inability with language, failing to talk dirty in the bedroom and verbally jousting HIMSELF a movie theater, are funny. They could have been hilarious with concise editing. These are all minor flaws compared to the depiction of her family and love interest.
“Trainwreck” switches tracks from mad-cap sketch comedy to traditional romantic comedy. Using a Woody Allen’s work as a reference oscillates between being “Bananas” and “Annie Hall”. The boyfriend, Bill Hader, gives a solid performance but it is incongruous with Amy being Amy. He is not alone. The very polished supporting cast seems ensconced in a traditional romantic comedy while the irreverent TV host wanders in to perform her shtick. It can be fun. Tilda Swinton deftly channels Tina Brown/Anna Wintour as Amy’s boss. LeBron James play himself but without Schumer’s self-consciousness. It is odd that a professional athlete could outshine a seasoned performer. This is because LeBron is firmly in the world of make-believe whereas Schumer’s authenticity waxes and wanes. The scenes with the father, sister and boyfriend are fixed in a plot driven drama demanding an appropriate degree of realism. This is in sharp contrast to the numerous set piece skits with the love interests or other celebrities. Is the scene where LeBron hosts an intervention with a group of sports figures (and Matthew Broderick?) supposed to be played straight? It was off-key and stilted. Are the monologues recounting Amy’s frat-boy sexual prowess supposed to elicit laughter or pity? Unfortunately the intent was the former but the result was the latter. Overall this film’s funny scenes are out of kilter and the ‘serious’ moments are flat.
There is a paradox in this film’s success. It has currently garnered twice what it cost to make. Judging by the legions of celebrities clamoring for cameos Schumer is very much in demand. It is no wonder that she is one of the comedians selected for a coveted appearance on the last taping of the John Stewart’s “The Daily Show”. The reviews have been fairly forgiving and some have even raved. It’s unfortunate as it might give her the green light to venture into more feature work without honing her skills. She is a talent. She is not a filmmaker or screenwriter…. at least not yet. The most entertaining moments during the screening I attended were provided by a group of three elderly women who provided searing commentary as the movie dragged on. This sort of of audience interactions was common in the urban movie theaters of my youth four decades ago. It was a welcome surprise in rural Vermont. Here is a sample of the verbal critique, “Why is SHE dating HIM… HE IS DUMB…. this is STUPID…. this is just DUMB…. she would never go out with HIM… he’s an IDIOT and she’s SMART”. It continued unabated through numerous plot twists with the theme being none of it was that funny or made much sense. At the three quarter mark the women threw in the towel and left… but not without a final salvo in my direction, “BORING!”. I failed to engage in a conversation but I couldn’t agree more. If only Amy could have spoken to them. Her legacy would be burnished by paying serious attention to commentary from the boonies. We are nothing if not critical. Schumer, despite all the tough girl posturing, has surrounded herself with people who are not challenging her artistically. This is a badly executed, ill-conceived work rooted in correctable foibles. No one dared tell the empress about her clothes. Why should they? The executives will pat her on the back due to the good box office. This will only embolden the feckless creative entourage to shower more accolades. In the end the work is laughable - but not in good way. "Trainwreck" is an illustration of that adage that warns about the light at the end of tunnel.... hopefully she will avoid a head on collision. She needs to switch tracks before the next feature.