Comedy it-girl Amy Schumer has excellent timing. As feminist issues have increasingly popped up in mainstream media and culture over the last couple years, so has Schumer. Her sketch comedy impales sexism with a sharpness we don’t usually see in mainstream TV. But if you’re looking for an all-encompassing feminist comedian, it’s not Schumer. Her racist jokes miss the mark and her feminism is strictly of the Tina Fey brand: It’s the comfortable, white, heterosexual kind. Though her new film Trainwreck, directed by Judd Apatow, isn’t a wreck—there’s plenty of material to laugh about—it remains disappointingly myopic.
In the film, Schumer stars as a character named Amy, the titular “trainwreck.” In the words of the film’s advertising, she’s a “commitment-phobic career woman who may have to face her fears when she meets a good guy.” Amy is a writer at a sexist men’s magazine (“You’re Not Gay, She’s Just Boring” being one headline that’s tossed around) that serves as a pretty solid satirical jab at male-centric (i.e.: all mainstream) media. As a child, Amy’s father instilled in her that “monogamy isn’t realistic,” and so she spends her young life following his creed. When we meet her in the present-day, she describes herself as “just a sexual girl,” and we watch her not-so-kindly kicking men out of her house after sleeping with them. She’s a drinker and a partier. Basically, she’s a slightly more responsible version of another of Apatow’s characters, Ben Stone from Knocked Up. Love interest Aaron (Bill Hader) is a highly successful and dedicated sports doctor. In a flip of the traditional rom-com dynamic, he’s the marriage-minded and romantic one, the one who believes in love and its public displays. While the standard plot arc remains (monogamous coupling is the single-minded goal), it’s Amy who’s the sexually assertive, aimless stoner and Aaron who is haplessly trying to corral her into being stable marriage-material.
Since Schumer is known for being a sketch and stand-up comedian, it’s unsurprising that the movie is filled to the brim with one-liner jokes. Trainwreck relies on situational and physical comedy, too, but it really hedges its bets on landing those one-liners. Many of them do land. But the film suffers both from a sitcom-like delivery—jokes pile on top of each other with minimal reaction from other characters—and a resounding nasty streak. Amy’s father, Gordon, played by Colin Quinn, is something of a can’t-go-there stand-in: his character is a way to get horribly racist and homophobic jokes in the film. He utters a litany of words whose shock value will have some audiences giggling in a way that’s deemed “okay” because Amy rolls her eyes at him. That’s not to say Amy doesn’t make a whole slew of awful jokes: She teases a young boy for being feminine, demeans dancers (most of whom are women of color) for showing their bodies, dishes out an unfunny and played-out “I have Black friends” joke and a couple nasty rape jokes. These all feel like they’re only in the film for the sake of being scandalous, and the father character feels like he was created just for this purpose.
Scandalous jokes aren’t unfamiliar to Schumer, of course. After she was criticised for racist jokes in June, her response was pretty mediocre: “You can call it a ‘blind spot for racism’ or ‘lazy’ but you are wrong. It is a joke and it is funny. I know that because people laugh at it … Trust me. I am not racist.” She’s right: People laugh at racist jokes, at homophobic jokes, at all kinds of stereotypical jokes. But a joke that relies on stereotypes is a joke that's pre-written. It can be a joke and still be lazy and easy; the two aren’t mutually exclusive. A joke that creates laughter is not automatically a good joke. We don’t always have to punch down to crack up, and these jokes, along with much of the film’s comedic backbone, ignore that.
Despite this type of unfortunate one-liner that I’ve come to expect from Schumer—and there are plenty of them here—the movie does successfully slam some stereotypes. Trainwreck is most successful in its depictions of the dynamics between the leads and their best friends. In traditional rom-coms, the male lead’s best friend is often a crass guy who questions his friend’s commitment. In Trainwreck, Amy’s friend Nikki (SNL-er Vanessa Bayer) gets to make those jabs. One better is Aaron’s confidant, LeBron James, who, playing “himself,” is completely charming and delightful. Here he is the love-obsessed friend and the one looking out for his friend’s best interests. At one point, when seeking Amy’s intentions with Aaron, he asks her, completely straight-faced, “When you listen to the wind, do you hear his name?” More LeBron James in films, please.
There's another famous athlete in the film, too: Wrestler John Cena plays Amy’s nominal “boyfriend” Steven. The differences between Amy and Steven create a sex scene that is a lot different from what we’re used to seeing: Steven, comically muscular, is completely naked, while Amy stays covered up.
The film could have done without its demeaning jokes—and despite trying to subvert the traditional rom-com, it's still heteronormative and largely white, a single-vision problem almost all romantic comedies suffer from. But the film’s attempt to show a kind of sexually confident woman and empathetic man typically unseen in mainstream romantic comedies is one baby step in the right direction. I just wish the step was more inclusive.