High expectations have not been a part of the romantic comedy game for some time, but that’s exactly what Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck faces—at least from fans of its star and screenwriter’s (mostly) sketch comedy series Inside Amy Schumer. Schumer’s biggest fans may not be expecting a rom-com at all, but that is, more or less, what Trainwreck offers, albeit with much bigger laughs and more resonant emotion than the genre has seen in a while.
In keeping with her sketch-comedy tradition, Schumer plays another woman named Amy, this version living in New York, working at a magazine, and worrying about her cantankerous father Gordon (Colin Quinn), who has recently moved into an assisted-living facility. In the opening scene, Gordon advises a preteen Amy and her little sister Kim (well played as an adult by Brie Larson) that monogamy is a losing proposition, and while grown-up Amy recognizes her father’s failings, she both makes excuses for him and more or less lives by his advice, casually dating a gym rat (John Cena) while hooking up with various one-night guys on the side. When she meets Aaron (Bill Hader), a successful sports surgeon, they manage to go on several dates. Suddenly, Amy finds herself perilously close to a serious relationship.
It’s a tricky thing in romantic comedy, modulating the central couple’s obstacles. If they’re too big, overcoming them can feel like an epic contrivance; if they’re too small, there’s the risk of seeming pointlessly easy. Trainwreck sticks to smallness, but in the best way. Amy’s struggles with commitment, alcohol, and empathy sting, and sometimes visibly unnerve Aaron. Though Schumer has plenty of funny lines, she’s not just spouting zingers; there’s a real hostility in Amy Townsend that makes her pettier, tenser, and more interesting than a lot of fictional single gals making their way in the city. (As such, she may further ruffle the feathers of the real-life Schumer’s more vigilant critics—and even fans, who have come to expect or even demand trenchant social commentary from all of her material). “You’re not nice,” someone tells Amy at one point, and it’s hard to argue. On the guy side, the movie makes Aaron sweetly imperfect in his attempts to forge “normal” couplehood with her. Though Apatow didn’t co-write Trainwreck—it’s the first movie he’s directed without his name on the screenplay—his influence is all over the movie’s view of relationships as real, if ultimately rewarding, work.
That influence also provides a default comic style for a voice presumably more accustomed to the shorter narratives of stand-up and sketches. It creates a hybrid aesthetic especially evident in Amy’s job at S’Nuff, where the staff works on articles with titles like “Ugliest Celebrity Kids Under 6.” It’s a very Schumer riff on faux-irreverent, faux-culture magazines and websites, located in a very Apatow workplace: intimidating, including a vaguely threatening boss (here played by Tilda Swinton, only semi-recognizable), yet with a seemingly undemanding workload that provides plenty of time for coworker-related riffs (here provided by Swinton, Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, and Randall Park). A few of Apatow’s go-to moves provide an unnecessary crutch here, propping up a comic who can stand on her own: the endless side characters (funny but sometimes interchangeable), the sports cameos subbing in for the Hollywood cameos, and an odd running gag (featuring even more celebrity cameos) of characters watching a black-and-white movie that plays a like a parody of an indie movie made by someone who’s only heard about them secondhand. (That may well be a creation of Schumer’s script; either way, it’s not as funny as it’s supposed to be.)
In terms of its own genre, Trainwreck never approaches full-on parody, but it does tweak some familiar conventions without excess meta-commentary: When Hader plays casual dude-talk basketball, for example, it’s with LeBron James, appearing as himself in a bona fide supporting role, and doing a surprisingly credible job as Aaron’s best friend. The New York setting, too, is something of a rom-com trope—just ask They Came Together—but Apatow adjusts to his first non-Los Angeles movie with a grainier celluloid texture, courtesy of cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who shot much of the first season of Girls as well as Lena Dunham’s feature Tiny Furniture. The more overtly comic dialogue-heavy scenes still require plenty of coverage, but in more intimate scenes Apatow places trust in his visuals, like a lovely two-shot of Schumer and Hader sitting in a cab after she’s invited herself home with him. When they get to his apartment, the first chunk of the scene plays out in a single, dimly lit take.
In these moments, Trainwreck turns sex farce into genuine romance, and throughout the movie, the handling of Amy’s family troubles is sincerely touching. Despite Schumer’s joke-heavy sketch background, this isn’t Apatow’s funniest feature on a laughs-per-minute level. But unlike many comic vehicles and just as many big-city romances, it’s a real, and ultimately rewarding, piece of work. A big-studio romantic comedy infused with actual human feeling is just as rare an accomplishment as the perfect comedy sketch.