After you’ve watched Trainwreck, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special discussion with Dana Stevens and Anne Helen Petersen. You can also download the podcast here.
The wiki site TV Tropes, in its infinite nomenclatural wisdom, has created a term for films or TV shows in which the protagonist’s first name is also the name of the lead actor: the Danza (after Tony Danza, who played a guy named Tony in two long-running sitcoms, Taxi and Who’s the Boss?). There are many reasons to pull a Danza, but the most important has to do with name recognition as brand leverage. Some performers, especially stand-up comedians (think Louis C.K. or Roseanne Barr), are so identified with their names that basing a character on their stage persona and then giving that character a different name just seems like a needless waste of ready-to-hand audience goodwill.
Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, scripted by and starring Amy Schumer—who hosts the similarly eponymous Comedy Central sketch show Inside Amy Schumer—goes full Danza, christening its leading lady “Amy” in a film populated by other well-known comics not using their own first names. That choice in itself says a lot about the cultural place Amy Schumer occupies at this moment: that of a brashly honest young comedian who’s building a successful career on the radical premise that, even as a pretty blonde woman who talks a lot about sex, she intends to get away with being exactly who she is. The arrival of Trainwreck in theaters feels major—not because it’s a perfect movie by any stretch, but because it marks the big-screen arrival of Amy, a character/creator/performer who takes the romantic-comedy heroine and the onscreen treatment of feminism to places they’ve seldom, if ever, been before.
The Amy who Amy plays in Trainwreck isn’t a rapidly rising TV comedian (that would be an “As Herself,” not a Danza). She’s a staff writer for a glossy men’s magazine called (A-plus on this joke) S’Nuff. At their editorial meetings, headed up by a spray-tanned and near-unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, un-shamefaced journalists pitch headlines such as “You Call Those Tits?” and “You’re Not Gay, She’s Just Boring.” Despite her complete indifference to sports (I feel you, sister!), Amy is saddled with the assignment of profiling a prominent sports-medicine specialist, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), who’s also known for his volunteer work with Doctors Without Borders. Dr. Conners is earnest, serious, and deeply committed to his job—a far cry from the ambitious but self-sabotaging Amy, who’s so alienated by her soulless workplace that she parties just a shade too hard, sometimes waking up in a borough she doesn't even remember going to and stumbling her way home in red stiletto heels. (Schumer’s brilliant bit of physical comedy on that Staten Island walk of shame provides the closest onscreen approximation I’ve seen of what walking in very high heels after a long night on the town feels like.)
It doesn’t take long until Amy and Aaron have slept together (because it doesn’t take long till Amy and anyone have slept together), but they each respond to the encounter very differently. He’s smitten, calling her the next day with an invitation to dinner; she’s so used to casual hookups she’s almost offended by his show of interest. As we’ve learned from a brief opening flashback, Amy is the child of a proud philanderer (Colin Quinn, in a dryly funny and ultimately moving performance) who used to lecture his two young daughters on the impossibility of monogamy. The adult Amy has absorbed his lesson, resisting intimacy in favor of a series of one-night stands and an occasional night at the movies with a pea-brained gym rat (the pro wrestler John Cena, who lays bare nearly everything in one bravura comic sex scene). Amy’s younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson), grew up to prove her dad wrong—she’s happily married to a sweet suburban dork (Mike Birbiglia) and stepmother to his ultrageeky preteen son (Evan Brinkman, nailing the kind of exuberant kid energy that’s endearing if you love the kid in question and exhausting if—like Amy, at least when we first meet her—you don’t).
Amy and Kim’s unrepentant scalawag of a father is now in a wheelchair because of MS—a disease that afflicts Schumer’s father in real life—and the sisters have reluctantly and somewhat resentfully moved him out of his house into an expensive nursing home. He wasn’t much of a dad, they say to each other (and, when his racist, misogynist wisecracks get on their nerves, to him), but since they lost their mother years ago, he’s all they’ve got.
That’s a lot of painful backstory for a romantic comedy heroine, but one of the charms of the emotionally capacious Trainwreck is that the non-romantic plotlines don’t really count as backstory. The rocky but loving relationships Amy has with her father and sister are every bit as important to the story as the connection she shares with her (would-be) boyfriend, and all three parts of her life affect and change one another, just like in—imagine that!—real life. And there’s at least one important friendship at stake too—the bond between Hader’s Aaron and LeBron James (as himself). Aaron is LeBron’s doctor, but also his confidant, brunch buddy and—in a scene that’s hilarious whether you care about sports or not—one-on-one basketball partner. The rom-com cliché of dudes confiding their love problems over a game of pick-up ball—amusingly satirized in David Wain’s 2014 spoof They Came Together—gets a new slapstick twist when one of the two dudes in question can pluck the basketball from the other’s hands like a giant bending down to pick a dandelion. James gives a funny performance off-court too, his placid comic timing meshing nicely with Hader’s more anxious energy as he earnestly urges his doctor-turned-pal to give Cleveland a chance (“You know Cleveland’s great for the whole family, right?”), then tries to weasel out of paying his half of the brunch check.
Like nearly all of Apatow’s films, Trainwreck could lose 20 minutes. A scene in which LeBron stages a relationship intervention with Hader’s character, aided by Marv Albert, Chris Evert, and, for some reason, Matthew Broderick (all “as themselves”) veers so far into sketch-comedy zaniness that it breaks the movie’s comic rhythm. And at this point in rom-com history, you’re only allowed a third-act “separation montage” set to a wistful pop song if you do something new with the formula, which Apatow and Schumer really don’t. Trainwreck also contains an odd strain of racial humor involving its white heroine’s discomfort around black people that needed to be either explored further or cut. Asked to produce a photo of herself with a black friend—a bizarre request in itself—Amy frantically scrolls through her phone, finds a picture of a waiter pouring her water and tries to pass him off as her BFF. Later, in the subway, she gets a dressing-down from a black woman who seems to have been brought in mainly to provide a soupçon of ghetto sass. I’m not sure these moments would have stood out as much if Schumer hadn’t recently been criticized for her show’s treatment of race, but they would definitely still have registered.
I can’t get into the ending of Trainwreck without spoilage, but I found the final scene faintly disappointing—too unquestioning of the happy-ever-after clichés familiar from more sexist, less interesting comedies, with a plot-logic hole you could drive LeBron James through. But the movie still sent me out of the theater smiling, because—as a booty-shaking dance number makes clear—Amy, playing “Amy,” has arrived on the big screen, and she’s not going anywhere.