What iteration of Johnny Depp would you sleep with? That’s what Amy Townsend (Amy Schumer, playing herself without playing herself) and her friend Nikki are considering as they sit in two bathroom stalls. They’re staff writers at a men’s magazine—S’Nuff—and their debate is as fierce as Depp’s eyeliner. (For whatever it’s worth, Pirates-era femme-Johnny is the one to beat.) It’s the sort of observational digression you usually find in stand-up comedy. And when it makes room for such beautiful bits of witty nothingness, Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck—written by Schumer—can match the vitality of a Lenny Bruce set.
Some riffs are transgressive. Some achieve more—they massage Schumer’s performative promiscuity into cinematic poetry. Townsend begins dating surgeon-to-the-athletic-stars Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). One montage sees them “normaling” like a couple in a Julia Roberts movie: touring the city, leaning on each other, making out—all while Townsend is verbally vomiting over the sentiment of the sequence via voiceover. Maybe it’s a stretch to say that Trainwreck is making a calculated effort not just to subvert the romcom genre but to offend any audience member not at ease with female sexuality. But how else to explain the scene where Townsend monologues about that time she got a condom caught in her cervix?
Another scene redoes an iconic composition from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, except when you see Townsend and Connors on a bench—where Allen sat with Diane Keaton—you notice she’s going down on him. It’s cheeky, but Apatow knows just how long to hold on it; Trainwreck isn’t his best movie, but it may be his best directed. There’s one profoundly moving composition where his camera stares at the couple, head-on, while they sit side by side in a cab: Townsend has propositioned Connors, and he’s working out the possibilities and trying to catch up as she’s smirking in anticipation. The moment contains everything we need to know about the characters and their relationship—she’s in charge, he’s along for the ride, and they’re uncontrollably attracted to each other—and it’s probably the most captivating image Apatow has ever filmed. (Thanks to Schumer, it’s also the sexiest.)
A shot like that suggests that the upside of Apatow is emerging. But he’s still got his blind spots—he’s a better director of comedians than he is of actors. He molds entire films to accommodate that deficiency, throwing coherent characterizations out for the sake of gags (Tilda Swinton plays a monstrously selfish magazine editor, who nonetheless shows up at the funeral of a man she’s never met) and then throwing narrative out for the sake of cameos. Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick, and LeBron James stage an emotional intervention for Connors, deep into the movie, despite only LeBron having been on screen prior. The whole audience leans forward and asks, “Why?” And the best that Trainwreck can offer seems to be, “Why not?”
But maybe all those digressions are an essential part of these Apatow movies. Maybe “why not?” is an abiding principle of his art. At his best—in Funny People—all the randomness condenses into a thematic whole. And when it does, it’s the closest we get to a cinematic equivalent of stand-up comedy: The first riff goes one way, and the next another, but they’re all tied together by the closing line. Trainwreck, focusing almost entirely on Townsend’s messy sexuality and the way the uptight Conners is thrown for a loop by it, achieves that thematic unity. The only problem is that the last lines summing it all up are as conventional as the romcoms Schumer is making fun of.
It could be that she and Apatow intend the film’s narrative as parody. That would explain why she sprints to the film’s last location (even though she’s not in a rush), why we see her getting dressed for that same rendezvous (even though she changes into a different outfit before the scene starts), and why the film’s bombastic final moments—they involve choreographed dancing—seem so deliriously unreal. Whether it’s sincere or spoof—a tongue-in-cheek piss-taking or a concession to commercial appeal—Trainwreck wraps itself up with an uncharacteristic tidiness. It’s a pat happy ending that the movie has certainly earned. But Schumer and her verbose, filthy frankness deserve better.
TRAINWRECK. RATED R. NOW PLAYING EVERYWHERE.