Can 'Trainwreck' Help Save The Romantic Comedy?

Amy Schumer-brand comedy is definitely a thing we need more of. Also, faux-LeBron LeBron James.
Universal Pictures

Depending on which reviews and/or think pieces you've read, "Trainwreck" is a wonderful romantic comedy that challenges postfeminism, or maybe it's not even a rom-com at all. So what happens when you long for good, old-fashioned rom-coms -- we're talking Nora Ephron and Garry Marshall and Nancy Meyers stuff -- in a world where the genre is outdated and clichéd? We end up with a lot of the next best thing, and sometimes you get close, as with last year's "Obvious Child."

In some ways, "Trainwreck" comes from that same wellspring of contemporary romance tales. The monogamy-loathing, hard-partying Amy Townsend (Amy Schumer) writes for a sleazy men's magazine. When she is assigned a profile of popular sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), she winds up sleeping with him, and so begins an unexpected courtship that starts to break down her romantic walls. So, is "Trainwreck" a satisfying step forward for the post-"Bridget Jones's Diary" landscape? The Huffington Post's resident rom-com enthusiasts, Lauren Duca and Matthew Jacobs, are here to discuss.

Matt: Heya, Lauren. Right around this time last year, we wrote about the pains of the dying practically dead romantic comedy. The genesis of that discussion came from the atrocious "And So It Goes" and the decent "What If," which we hoped would usher in something resembling hope for the genre, even if neither was going to be the next "You've Got Mail" or even the next "Never Been Kissed." Both failed to hit the $20 million mark at the domestic box office, and since then, we've gotten "Laggies," "Playing It Cool" and, well, that's about it -- until now. Now, we have "Trainwreck." Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer's new film, while imperfect, is certainly the closest and brightest we've come to the genre's glory days since, in my estimation, "Crazy, Stupid, Love."

Tell me if you agree, Lauren. What did you think of "Trainwreck," and is it fair to crown it one of the 2010s' few rom-com gems?

Lauren: You know, I saw it with a friend who -- after checking IMDb to verify my claim that that glam editor was, in fact, Tilda Swinton -- said she was disappointed it ended with them getting together. "How else could it have even ended?" I asked her, defensively programmed by the rom-com formula (and probably too ready to go to bat for Schumer, who was in the midst of Guardian backlash at that point). She didn't have an alternative conclusion. Although, I think that might be because the edginess of the film wears down gradually, so that by the end, the expected rom-com conclusion is inevitable.

At first, I would have argued that "Trainwreck" is sort of parodying the genre, so it needs to largely fit the mold of the structure to be effective. Don't get me wrong, it's hilarious and great (Amy, if you're reading this, hi! I love you and I want to be friends with you IRL very much), but it sort of plays like a series of sketches rather than a cohesive movie. They are great and funny sketches! Still, the core of the plot and fake Amy (Townsend)'s connection with Bill Hader feels contrived.

I guess that's where I'm frustrated. "Trainwreck" teeters on shattering the confines of the rom-com and then almost corrects itself mid-way through, worrying it's going too far and deciding to set up Amy's habits (drinking, smoking pot, receiving oral sex and then pretending to fall asleep, etc.) as problem behavior in need of correction by a guy. In a way, maybe that makes it fit the genre perfectly, but I think I was hoping for a bit more.

Universal Pictures

Matt: It's like validating the man-saves-woman formula as long as the woman is full of supposed vices and doesn't really want to grow up anyway. As much as I wanted to pass Aaron a joint and tell him to chill a little, I also think there is something refreshing in seeing a rom-com where the female character is an unapologetic jerk. And not in an icy, snobbish or materialistic way -- just in a let-me-live way. Amy's self-absorption is what softened the formula for me. She's too confident to need a man to validate her -- but she needed something to give her purpose, because her vapid glam hunter of a boss and that sexist magazine aren't going to do it, and because she's a walking contradiction of her joyfully married sister (played by Brie Larson). The man, then, is more about letting go of all the times society (and her father, played by Colin Quinn) indicated that monogamy will screw her over. I liked that aspect. Love is real! Not to make this about media ethics or anything, but my problem was more that Schumer didn't give fictional Amy the professional wherewithal to know that she shouldn't sleep with her interview subject.

My only unrepentant complaint involves the beats of Aaron and Amy's relationship, which you mentioned, too. It feels like there isn't much time to savor them as a couple because, in typical Apatowian fashion, the movie is slightly bloated. I loved LeBron James playing a "Downton Abbey"-loving LeBron James, but I'd rather spend more time developing the charm of Amy and Aaron's flirtations. Then again, I'm asking for rom-com conventions, and that is clearly a fruitless endeavor in 2015.

Lauren: Wait, yeah, I just realized how blithely I accepted her hooking up with a profile subject (and am also now vaguely regretting not putting the moves on several interviewees*, if that's a chill thing to do?).

I agree that she is confident and self-involved in a way that subverts the typical narrative. And yet, I hate that rejecting the postfeminist dystopia involves reverting to finding a guy. In her essay for Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen read Amy's "reform" as giving up behaviors she engaged in out of fear (i.e. because she felt like aggressively having fun was something she had to do). Except, why is that personal betterment tied up in a romantic interest?

It almost makes me feel like powering through the postfeminist dystopia would have been a stronger option than settling for the inevitable happy ending as release from its confines. If we agree that Amy was who she was in the first half of the movie because she felt she had to be that way, I still think the movie chickens out as it moves toward resolution. Ultimately, "Trainwreck" serves up cutting commentary on "having fun" in a certain way out of obligation and then fills out the rest of the rom-com formula, more so tilting the script than flipping it.

Matt: Tilting, rather than flipping -- okay, I buy that. Still, thinking strictly about the evolution of rom-com tropes, I think "Trainwreck" is right at home in 2015. Crafting a girl-meets-boy tale according to today's standards doesn't mean the girl must eschew the boy. Amy retains her power by remaining skeptical of Aaron's intentions. You're right that she feels obligated to have a certain kind of fun -- that's a very fitting generational struggle -- but I also see it as a fierce independence that makes her wary of what she would need to give of herself in order to commit to Aaron, and what social pastimes she would be asked to abandon in order to quote-unquote settle down. If she only parties out of obligation, then no longer partying is about realizing she doesn't need it to feel confident. She has herself, and the boy comes after that.

What I like is that "Trainwreck" isn't built on a contrived scheme. More and more rom-coms throughout the 2000s relied on a race-against-the-clock gimmick: It's spelled out in the title of "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," there's a mistaken-identity gist to "Maid in Manhattan" and the romance in "The Proposal" is the result of Sandra Bullock avoiding deportation, to name a few examples. Here, the crux is that Amy didn't think she needed love, yet found it anyway -- and that's okay! Dare I say it's even optimistic? You can be independent enough not to feel a desire for romance, then find the right person who tacitly convinces you that love isn't so hopeless or damning after all. It takes away the manic-pixie-dream-boy quality that the film teeters on. In other words, there's a sincerity at work that seemed to dwindle once modern rom-coms decided they needed bigger plots in order to feel less hackneyed. Not to mention that Schumer and Hader are just damn good in it. They're almost more charming for being, in some ways, decidedly uncharming in their relationship's progression.

Universal Pictures

Lauren: Oh, yes. The gimmick is so '90s. And while we've watched the "article saves the day (and then they meet at a sporting venue)" ending before in "Never Been Kissed," that's okay because that cheerleader dance which closes off the film is one of the top five funniest things I have seen on screen this year. It could have been slapstick, but Amy is just for real trying so hard and making the most endearing faces while she turns wearing the unofficial uniform of the patriarchy into the film's biggest joke.

I have to admit part of me expects so much from Amy (Schumer, the real-life person, not Townsend) that I was thinking "Trainwreck" was going to be a more stunning inversion of the failing genre. That it's funny and pretty good and makes at least 49 percent of a solid comment on the postfeminist dystopia is still progress. I just think we need films that maintain the cheeky unreality of rom-coms, but also break from the constraints of that typical ending. Dropping the gimmick allows for a newfound sincerity. What about a sense of reality in the overall arc? Couldn't that be part of what is holding these movies back? I mean, mid-level movies in general have been crushed in the evil fist of "Transformers" and sequels and remakes. But there's an element of predictability that makes the rom-com almost automatically tired.

Matt: That too! Most pre-2000s rom-coms weren't so far-fetched. "Sleepless in Seattle" was about as ridiculous as it got, and even that is a pretty down-to-earth movie by certain romance-film standards.

I've seen others make similar remarks about expecting a distinct progressiveness from Schumer and feeling disappointed because "Trainwreck" doesn't always accomplish that. I understand where it comes from, but I think it's unfair. As feminist as "Inside Amy Schumer" is, expecting her to invert tropes the way we want her to makes Amy Schumer an idea rather than an artist, especially since this is her script. I know we want most of our superstars to pick an ideal to represent nowadays, but I think we have to try not to let her stand-up routines and Comedy Central series dictate what an Amy Schumer movie should look like.

At the same time, I get what you mean, Lauren, and I'm thrilled to see the cinematic work Schumer will do without Apatow's influence, which does loom large over "Trainwreck." She co-directed the excellent "12 Angry Men" satire on her show, so let's get her behind the camera, too. Or I'd love to see her build a world, rather than play an analogue of herself, but I accept if that's not her M.O. right now. In the meantime, I'm happy to see a rom-com that's at least moderately traditional, and I'm happy to see the Schumer Train continue to whistle along.

Lauren: Oh, yes, I am all aboard that proverbial train, which is also an extended metaphor based on the title of the movie we are discussing. "Trainwreck" wasn't perfect, but it was fun, definitely worth seeing and better than many of the attempts to resuscitate the rom-com in recent memory. Amy Schumer-brand comedy is definitely a thing we need more of. Also, faux-LeBron LeBron James.

*Just kidding, HR.

She's passionate.

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