Notes On the Politics of Authorship and Expectations in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer’s ‘Trainwreck’

Trainwreck

I saw Trainwreck on Monday. The movie had only been out since Friday, but in the age of Twitter, that seemed like an eternity. Like coming especially late to a party everyone has strong feelings about. Which is funny, because my feelings towards Trainwreck aren’t particularly strong in any way. It was an often very funny movie that was otherwise quite messy and shapeless. You know, what you’d expect from a Judd Apatow movie… which brings me to what I actually wanted to write about.

The auteur theory has taught us that the director is the author, which is to say the strongest creative voice, of a movie. It’s basically the reason why it’s acceptable to refer to “Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds“, but saying “Tom Cruise’s War of the Worlds” can easily result in some raised eyebrows. In the case of Trainwreck, however, the fight for authorship has been strong. Not that the people who made the movie (Apatow and actor/writer Amy Schumer) were fighting over who gets credit for what, but more like audiences were fighting for who gets credit for a movie they were excited to see.

The adds for Trainwreck publicize it as “from the guy who brought you Bridesmaids” (which is in and on itself kind of problematic phrasing, since Paul Feig directed Bridesmaids and Apatow was *only* a producer). Cinephiles, however, were mostly looking forward to it as an Amy Schumer movie.

The reason for this is based mostly on popularity. Apatow might have been one of the defining comedic voices of the aughts, but he peaked early, hadn’t directed a hit in years, and practically everyone agrees that his last movie, This is 40was a creative disaster. Schumer’s star, on the other hand, is on the rise. Actually, it is skyrocketing to the top as she gets rave reviews for her Comedy Central show and is nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards.

These are two very strong, but not necessarily compatible comedic voices. Apatow made his mark with the kind of manchild-grows-up comedies that most people are tired of today, while the brand of subversively feminist comedy found in Schumer’s show seems tailor-made for the internet’s hip-progressive discourse. Most people saw this as Apatow stepping down from his pedestal as the king of comedy and inviting a unique, younger, female voice to the podium (not unlike he did executive producing Lena Dunham’s Girls for HBO).

This is when expectations come in.

The best sketches in Inside Amy Schumer are so brilliant that they already had set an incredibly high bar for Trainwreck to jump over. Still, I think the most disappointing part of the whole enterprise was the fact that the movie featured virtually none of the subversive humor Schumer has been so widely praised for, and instead feels very much like your typical Apatow movie, except with a female protagonist.

From a filmmaking stand-point Trainwreck suffers from all the ailments of Apatow’s work as a director. The movie is long and unfocused. The improvisational style results in scenes that go for much longer than is acceptable. There are many sub-plots that go nowhere and characters that are played by recognizable talented actors that have little to nothing to do. It’s messy and inelegant, and at the end, one isn’t so sure that this particular story needed this much movie. Whether these problems come from Schumer’s script, Apatow’s directing, or the editing cannot be said with certainty. But the problems are there, and Trainwreck shares them with Apatow’s previous work.

That being said, the movie is often very funny, and almost always very watchable. Like most Apatow movie, it gains a lot of life from the core performances. In this case, the stars are a charismatic Schumer, an invaluably charming Bill Hader as her romantic interest, and, surprisingly enough, Lebron James in a surprisingly hilarious supporting performance. This is all to say that the fact that Trainwreck is more of what we’ve gotten from Apatow in the past isn’t a tragedy. It makes for a pretty fine movie.

People who were disappointed by this being an Apatow movie tend to just shrug it off and accept it for what it is. The most vocal detractors of the movie are those who were disappointed because they feel like the movie betrayed the way they understood Amy Schumer as a performer and comedian. Not only because the movie wasn’t nearly as incendiary as Schumer’s television show, but because it seemed to sport an outright contradictory philosophy to her usual comedy.

I must admit that can see where these people are coming from. Like in most Apatow films, Schumer’s character in the movie leaves behind her years as a reckless party girl to embrace the comfort and pleasures of traditional love and monogamy. I don’t have any inherent complaints towards this message, but the way it is presented makes Trainwreck seem like an unexpectedly conservative movie.

It starts with the fact that Schumer’s character is not that much of a “trainwreck” to begin with. Sure, she sleeps around, parties, and smokes weed to the determent of her romantic relationships, but that isn’t much of a big deal. The bar for toxic behavior by a female character was set pretty high by the very dark Young Adult, and this movie doesn’t really come close. The protagonist of Trainwreck is still the smartest and sanest person in her office, and she has pretty healthy relationships with her father and sister. If anything, the character’s most problematic behavior seems to be the apologetic stance she takes towards her and her father’s casual racism.

At the end of the movie, the character is “fixed” by getting together with the sensible doctor played by Bill Hader. Being in a monogamous, loving relationship is just what she needed. And it’s hard to argue that it seems like they’re a good match and it’s worth it for Amy to try and make the relationship work, but like I said, she didn’t seem like a particularly nasty person. What’s more, her most noxious behavior -the casual racism- is not only not addressed, but kind of forgiven when she gives a eulogy in which she says her father was a racist, offensive person, but also kind of the best guy she ever met.

Closing with monogamy and shrugging off racism seems like a shockingly conservative way to end the big screen debut of one of the most visible voices of liberal feminism. Although I suspect that part of this is due to Apatow’s liabilities as a filmmaker. His lack of focus seems to make him lose track of character, plot, and theme, so much so that his movies end up reading in a way he didn’t intend at all. Either that, or he was trying to put forward some very conservative politics.

And in case you were wondering, I’d probably give Trainwreck either a six out of ten.

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