Friday, July 17, 2015

Trainwreck: Not a total disaster

Trainwreck (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, profanity, nudity and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.17.15

This film is impressively schizophrenic.

On the one hand, it’s as jaw-droppingly vulgar and tasteless as the average Melissa McCarthy fiasco ... which is to say, pretty much what one should expect from something directed and produced by Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, This Is 40, Bridesmaids).

Although Aaron (Bill Hader) has no experience with being interviewed, he's savvy enough
to know when somebody is blowing smoke up his skirt ... and that's definitely the case,
as Amy (Amy Schumer) feebly tries to persuade him that she knows stuff about sports.
Then again, some of the crude bits are wincingly hilarious.

On the third hand, the seemingly relentless profanity and potty-mouthed sexuality are intercut with moments of tenderness that are touching enough to prompt tears ... as was the case with numerous patrons at Tuesday evening’s preview screening.

In the grand Hollywood tradition, then, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll cringe ... although I rather doubt Trainwreck will change your life.

But it certainly does prove that Amy Schumer has arrived. And how.

Actually, she’s already been around for a little while, as fans of her TV series Inside Amy Schumer are well aware. Her shtick gets its momentum from the juxtaposition between her fresh-faced, doe-eyed, girl-next-door (seeming) innocence, and the breathtakingly blunt and appalling stuff that emerges from her mouth. The goal is shock value, with (she undoubtedly hopes) at least a few belly-laughs along the way.

Trainwreck may be helmed by Apatow, but the script comes solely from Schumer. It’s maladroit, to say the least, and — at 125 minutes — needlessly bloated and self-indulgent. And yet her storyline also possesses (at times) a sparkling sweetness that perfectly suits the gal-desperately-needing-redemption character she has written for herself.

Which is why this film resonates more than McCarthy’s big-screen vehicles, where it’s impossible to engage emotionally with any of the one-dimensional burlesques populating the screen. Schumer still has a lot to learn, when it comes to translating her stand-up routines to the demands of a two-hour narrative, but her big-screen writing debut here is, nonetheless, better than many.

She stars as Amy (not much imagination there), one of the staff writers at New York’s S’Nuff magazine, a slick, deliberately ghastly publication that exists solely to mortify, humiliate and otherwise offend anybody with mainstream sensibilities. Her editor, Dianna, is a superficial bee-yatch of astonishing heartlessness: a role delivered with spectacular cruelty by Tilda Swinton.

Off the job, Amy is an unapologetic alcoholic and aggressively promiscuous, engaging in one-night stands with guys who never get to stay until morning. She acquired these tendencies from her rapscallion of a father, Gordon (Colin Quinn), who catted around shamelessly earlier in life, rarely had a kind word for anybody, and now has succumbed to ill health and become an embittered old man, recently placed in a managed care facility.

Which leaves Amy and younger sister Kim (Brie Larson, sensational as the “normal” sibling) to go through all his stuff, en route to cleaning out and selling his house. They playfully squabble and snipe during this process, not entirely comfortable in each other’s presence, and yet the sister dynamic is ferociously real, their dialogue absolutely authentic: the film’s first indication that — Schumer’s earthy tendencies aside — genuine truth lurks in its corners.

You’ll detect the same emotional intensity during Amy’s interactions with her father. Quinn makes him a truly unpleasant old crank, with little in the way of redeeming qualities: obviously more comfortable pushing people away, even when they’re his own daughters. And yet he’s Amy’s dad, and she adores him. Can’t help herself.

That’s the way it works.

Amy’s newest assignment involves interviewing successful sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a task to which she’s wholly unsuited, as she knows nothing about sports and disdains anybody shallow enough to follow this team or that. (Naturally, that’s why Dianna chooses Amy for the job.)

Amy’s initial meeting with Aaron is a masterpiece of verbal feinting, the latter immediately wise to her pathetic efforts to conceal her ignorance; he’s also unruffled by her wholly inappropriate efforts at humor. Hader is simply perfect opposite Schumer, his raised eyebrows, mocking half-smile and skepticism not quite condescending, but instead playfully tolerant: I see right through you, my dear, but that’s all right. Because you’re cute.

And that’s the thing: Aaron does find Amy cute. Which completely throws her. This is a creature outside her experience: a pleasant guy who seems — can it be? — genuinely nice.

They have a first date. Of sorts. Then, when Aaron calls Amy and suggests a second, her S’Nuff colleague and best friend Nikki (Vanessa Bayer), worried that this guy must be a stalker, suggests calling the police.

And so it goes like that, in fits and starts. Some quips, gags and set-pieces work; many others, not so much. I’m not sure that Schumer’s occasional off-camera narration is useful or even necessary; it just sorta is, like much of the film. There’s a certain sense that she and Apatow tried all sorts of stuff and retained a lot that probably should have been left on the cutting-room floor. Which is to say, the team of three (!) editors — William Kerr, Peck Prior and Paul Zucker — likely got paid for very little work.

And yet ... and yet ... some of that “stuff” is wonderful.

As befits his profession, Aaron hangs out with numerous sports stars, notably Amar’e Stoudemire and — most particularly — LeBron James. The latter is Aaron’s best friend and unofficial romantic advisor, with a deadpan delivery to die for. (LeBron James adept at comedy? Who knew?) One of their “chats” takes place during an amiable one-on-one basketball scuffle destined to become a YouTube sensation: a sequence choreographed for maximum mismatched hilarity.

As is customary in an Apatow film, the primary players are surrounded by overly embroidered hangers-on: some charming or amusing during their brief appearances, others falling flatter than the proverbial lead balloon. Dave Attell has a great running bit as Noam, the wisecracking homeless guy forever standing on the sidewalk outside Amy’s apartment; he also gets one of the film’s funniest lines, toward the end.

Ezra Miller is mildly amusing as a naïve and intrusive intern at S’Nuff: a part with an unexpected payoff. Mike Birbiglia is unexpectedly ordinary as Tom, Kim’s patiently cheerful — but rather boring — husband; and Evan Brinkman is oddly endearing as Tom’s mildly weird adolescent son, Allister.

And, goodness, 99-year-old Norman Lloyd — veteran of TV’s St. Elsewhere and numerous Hitchcock films, among many, many other things — pops up as a chatty resident at Gordon’s assisted-living facility.

On the other hand, Bayer’s Nikki isn’t nearly as funny as everybody seems to think, and WWE superstar John Cena’s presence as Steven, Amy’s initial, sorta-kinda boyfriend is a waste of space. The “gag” is that Steven doesn’t know that Amy is a serial cheater, and Cena is present mostly to display his impressively sculpted bare bod. But the total absence of chemistry between Schumer and Cena — which I’m sure is deliberate — feels like all concerned are just killing time before the real movie starts.

Another running gag finds Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei starring in a pretentious B&W arthouse flick called The Dogwalker. The occasional scenes from this droll travesty, sprinkled throughout the rest of the action, are mercifully brief and therefore just long enough to be mischievously funny.

At the end of the day, though, I’m not sure this film will find an audience. Arrested adolescents drawn by Apatow’s reputation for gross-out humor will be bored by the kinder, gentler aspects of Schumer’s script, whereas mild-mannered, mainstream viewers will never make it past the first 10 minutes, likely fleeing in a panic from the theater.

On the other hand, perhaps I worry too much. Crudeness notwithstanding, we became heavily invested in nerdy Steve Carell’s plight, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. And when one considers that the whole point of a redemption story is the pleasure derived from watching a flawed character better herself ... well, this story’s Amy couldn’t be more flawed, which makes the finale pretty darn satisfying.

Besides which, she saves the best for last: That concluding scene is a knock-out. And a great way to help us overlook the flaws, stumbles and excesses that precede it.

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