With Trainwreck, the comedy impresario Judd Apatow has once again made a movie about an irresponsible adult-child who is compelled to grow up by the end of the film. This was the plotline of both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the two box-office sensations that made Apatow’s career, and it resurfaces here. Yet in the place of Virgin’s Steve Carell and Knocked Up’s Seth Rogen, the adult-child in Trainwreck is Amy Schumer, the remarkable comedienne whose shtick is based on coming on stronger and dirtier and more libidinous than her male counterparts.
Schumer is credited with the screenplay for Trainwreck, and it’s full of great one-liners and raunchy mini-sketches that only she could have dreamed up. But in the end, Apatow serves as the 21st-century pop-culture equivalent of Huck Finn’s Aunt Sally to Schumer’s persona: He adopts her and “sivilizes” her. Huck Finn insisted he was going to “light out for the Territory” rather than be tamed; Schumer is clearly only too happy to be sanitized for box-office success.
Schumer plays the title character, an up-and-coming magazine writer who spends her nights drinking and drugging and sleeping around. She is assigned to write a profile of a young surgeon who performs miraculous operations on pro athletes, and the two fall in love. Then her fear of intimacy and her commitment issues kick in, and they break up. She must straighten herself out to be worthy of him.
It shouldn’t work, because (a) the nasty men’s magazine she works for doesn’t make any sense; (b) the hilarious Bill Hader, who plays the doctor, is given nothing funny to do and must spend the entire film essentially being Darrin Stephens from Bewitched; and (c) her life crisis is solved pretty much by throwing away liquor bottles and a bong. But it does work, because it turns out that Amy Schumer is very, very good at playing Amy Schumer, or what is probably the worst possible version of Amy Schumer that even she can imagine.
“You’re not nice,” a man tells her early in the movie, and she really isn’t. She’s mean to kids, she’s thoughtless when it comes to her loving and sweet sister, and she’s pretty unscrupulous about her work. And yet she’s so clever and smart and funny that you can’t help rooting for her, which is really all the movie needs to get to you.
The other reason the movie works has to do with Apatow’s special quality as a filmmaker. His movies are often longer and looser than most comic Hollywood fare, because time and again he pulls focus away from the lead actors and the nominal plotline to zoom in on funny secondary performers who are given a surprising chance to shine.
In Trainwreck, the shocking standouts are the usually humorless Tilda Swinton, playing Amy’s vicious Sloane Ranger boss; Vanessa Bayer as Amy’s wannabe partner in promiscuous crime; the wrestling personality John Cena as Amy’s dimwitted but well-meaning pseudo-boyfriend at the movie’s beginning; and, most startling and delightful, LeBron James as himself, playing the classic role of the love object’s best friend and confidant.
The list of comedy talent Apatow has nurtured and helped to blossom by giving them time onscreen is nothing short of staggering. It includes not only Carell and Rogen and Schumer, but also Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Lena Dunham, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Cera, Emma Stone, Jason Segel, Jane Lynch, Mindy Kaling, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Russell Brand, Leslie Mann (Apatow’s wife), and more still.
This is true even in the movies that he has produced but not directed: The Five-Year Engagement (2012) gave Chris Pratt his first real breakout part as (yes) a man-child who refuses to grow up until he is knocked sideways by a lovely woman. Pratt stole the picture and showed he could dominate the screen with an intense rendition of a love ballad (in Spanish!) that was completely unnecessary in terms of advancing the story but was utterly hilarious.
Schumer might have the chops to be the second coming of Bette Midler. Or this might be all she can do. It will be interesting to see. Meanwhile, the box-office success of Trainwreck suggests that Apatow (whose last picture, the autobiographical This Is 40, was his only serious directorial misfire) may be the canniest American moviemaker of the 21st century.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.