Monday, 21 September 2015

Off the Rails

Trainwreck


Subway smooches

Having been newly appointed as a journalist for the Entertainment section of Perdeby (the campus newspaper for the University of Pretoria), when I watched Judd Apatow's new film Trainwreck, I was delighted to have finally found a mainstream movie with a main character to whose career I could relate, in more than an entirely broad and admittedly minimal sense. “What?” you ask in amazement; “There aren’t hundreds of movies out there with Trotskyist dialectical humanist aesthetes and aspiring polymaths with a view to a career in the actuarial discipline, who also possess a distinct disdain for the chores and responsibilities of academic training?” It is difficult to believe, I grant you, but Selznick simply wasn’t making those movies then, and Spielberg isn’t making them now. And, though I have certainly seen movies before now that feature journalists - and loved some, such as All About Eve, which features a journalist doing pretty much the job I shall be doing (a little less sardonically than he, I hope) - I wasn’t a journalist when I watched them. Now, having started a blog and having been assigned the task of writing articles on certain topics by certain dates, I have a new appreciation for the work done by Amy Townsend (the protagonist of Trainwreck, played by Amy Schumer), and some sympathy for the difficulties she faces doing it.

I definitely must state, for the shorthand record, that my delight in Trainwreck is not mainly because of this coincidence in job titles, nor was it the main source of my excitement to see the film. That would be, firstly, that it is directed by Judd Apatow, one of my favourite and one of the finest filmmakers active in mainstream cinema today, and, secondly, because it stars - and was written by - Schumer, no doubt the funniest and most talented young lady currently working in American comedy. And the film delivers on the expectations of his and her breathlessly ardent fans: Trainwreck is crafted and polished throughout with Apatow’s remarkable good sense and flair for tone, placing the camera in an optimal position and keeping it there until the frame is filled with his ideas and his images; and the crisp, tremendously funny dialogue and one-liners is worthy of the best of Schumer’s routines and sketches on her Comedy Central show, Inside Amy Schumer.

The plot is easy enough to understand, no matter how often your attention is distracted by the uproarious humour. Amy works for a glossy men’s magazine (nauseating in its misogyny and crassness) called Snuffwhere her editor and boss is a caustic woman named Diana (Tilda Swinton, with an extravagant blonde wig and mordant British accent). She’s in a less-than-fulfilling relationship with the bodybuilder Steve (John Cena) - who seems to be more into men than he is into Amy - which she supposes to be a casual and open one; on many evenings she teeters home with some one-night stand, making sure not to allow any sleeping over or promises of courtship. And her professional expectations are as dire as her romantic ones: she’s considered the strongest writer at the magazine by Diana, but she sticks to topics in which she can disparage others, passing snide and cheap commentary on what is generally worked hard for. When a profile of a doctor for star athletes - Aaron Conners (Bill Hader) - is pitched by one of her colleagues at an editorial meeting, and Diana learns that Amy is completely contemptuous of sports, she assigns the profile to Amy, who sulkily agrees to meet Aaron hoping it will help her chances for a promotion.

When they first meet, Amy tries to fake a keen interest in sports, but Aaron calls her on it almost immediately, and it’s here where Schumer and Apatow diverge from the familiar ploys of romantic comedy. We aren’t pandered to with a gratuitously quirky or laughably entrancing leading man for Amy. Schumer’s script and Apatow’s direction of Hader’s performance make Aaron into a bracingly direct and plain-spoken guy, entirely suitable for someone with the nerdy but significant authenticity which leads to him being honoured in a special prize-giving held by Doctors Without Borders.

The rest of the plot is the development of the relationship between Amy and Aaron. She must obviously break it off with Steve – as, indeed, she should have done earlier – and the scene in which she does, packed as it is with zingers, is ultimately tender and even crushing for the plain effect put through by Cena, when his character reveals more substance in his affections than we, or Amy, had ever supposed were there.

Apatow is held in such exceedingly high regard by me for a few reasons. One – shown to be quite significant in this film – is his direction on the set; to be specific, his direction of actors. I have no idea what is required of a director to elicit such beautifully personal, sparklingly nuanced, exhilaratingly inventive, and refreshingly idiosyncratic performances, but if it were an easy task we should surely be seeing a lot more of what we’re given here. Apatow creates just the right atmosphere on set and on camera to allow Schumer to exaggerate and send forth the dogsbodies of her astounding comedic faculties, but without letting her detach herself from the integrated fabric of the film. And Hader, unlike in any of the work he’s done before, is neither fanatical nor dour, and it’s as if we’re seeing a real person beneath what was a (admittedly hilarious) mask up until now. We’ve always known that Swinton is both one of the most talented and one of the most naturally enthralling screen presences, and, as derisive a boss as she is (which, I feel I must point out, is very far removed from any of the editors I’ve encountered at Perdeby) and as scornful both of her female employees and female readers as she is, there is nothing I’ve seen in movies so far this year that is as magnetic and intoxicating as what she is in Trainwreck.

Although Trainwreck is, quite clearly, a comedy of the most full-bodied order, what it is in its essence is a romantic melodrama, in which the emotions and crises of the character Amy are distilled and intensified, and the resolutions of her life’s dissonances is amplified to something more than mere happenings, or a lightening of mood. The film is one of self-resentment and contempt (“What is wrong with you that you want to be with me?” she asks Aaron between sobs during an argument), and, following that, of self-discovery, and upliftment through success in romance. Unlike with many, many other purveyors of romantic comedy, for Apatow, love and a happy relationship is not a simple renunciation, nor a simple resolution, but the decision of two fully-formed characters to place themselves and each other to a series of tests. By the time of the film’s conclusion, nobody in the audience feels that Amy and Aaron will now live together in perfect harmony, let alone happily ever after; we sense that they have further difficulties ahead, but are prepared to face them together, and to steel themselves to the consequences.

This romantic hope arises for Amy from the moment she allows her personal life to infringe upon her professional duties, and begins behaving rather unprofessionally. Instead of merely reporting on Aaron’s activities, and producing a piece of objective journalism, she becomes romantically involved with her subject, and renders a distinctly intimate portrait of him in both his personal and professional life. Amy is fully conscious of her unethical behaviour; she learns about herself and discovers a surprising yearning she has had for love, and this awareness informs her writing.

There is also a major subplot in the film involving Amy’s family – her father (Colin Quinn), sister Kim (Brie Larson), sister’s husband (Mike Birbiglia), and sister’s stepson (Evan Brinkman). There is much to say about what can be found here, but for now I’ll only note that in Apatow’s movies it’s clear that there’s no such thing as a nuclear, traditional family. Apatow understands that personal relationships are immense challenges which require intense devotion; and they’re no less unique than the characters who partake in them. Kim’s family is no more conventional than Amy by herself, or, later, Amy and Aaron; and there are no more silent codes and traditional customs in a long-lasting relationship than in a short fling, or even in a single person’s solitude.

Trainwreck has faced the common criticism of Apatow’s films, which is that it’s a little too long. I differ decidedly on that point – it’s about an hour too short. Richard Brody has noted that the two ideal lengths for a movie are an hour an three minutes, and three hours. Trainwreck is just over two hours. The hour that’s missing is one in which the characters and their visions collide in a sometimes frightening, often exhilarating spectacle. Much of it is in Apatow’s earlier hit, Knocked Up, but only snatches are included in the later This is 40, and it’s just hinted at in Trainwreck. It’s the characters’ opportunities to reveal their dreams, their fears, their insecurities, their angers, and more. Here is where the inner lives would be most tenderly and, simultaneously, most furiously intensified, and the peculiarities of each character would come to the fore. The success of such a sequence – which I suppose to be within the powers of Apatow – would surely be something cathartic for any audience member willing to submit himself to its potency.

Trainwreck is directed by Judd Apatow; written by Amy Schumer; music by Jon Brion; director of photography, Jody Lee Lipes; edited by Paul Zucker. Running Time: 124 minutes. 2015.


STARRING: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Daniel Radcliffe, Marisa Tomei


Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei in the high-art "Dog Walker"

2 comments:

  1. You brilliantly capture what's so great about this film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh thank you! I'm glad you like it (both the film and my review).

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