“There will never be an American AbFab.”
This was the first thought in my mind as I left the theater after seeing “Trainwreck,” the new Judd Apatow/Amy Schumer moralizing romcom. The movie seems to think that it’s the story of a bad girl who triumphs over adversity and gets her man. It’s actually the story of a basically nice girl with major daddy issues, who learns and teaches a few heartwarming lessons on her journey toward somewhat delayed adult responsibility. This movie pulls all its punches.
Amy (played by Schumer) works for a men’s-interest magazine called S’nuff. Her fierce boss (Tilda Swinton in human drag) snags an idea for a sports-doctor profile from Amy’s coworker (“Fresh Off the Boat”‘s Randall Park, a delight as always) and orders sports-hating Amy to write the piece. The sports doc is played by Bill Hader and we’re off on what purports to be the tale of a good boy who falls for a bad girl.
The thing is… Amy’s just not that bad. There’s a great opening scene in which her father explains that he’s leaving their family because he wants to continue tomcatting around. The bond between Amy and her father is the movie’s greatest strength: I’m always down for a tale of horrible people who genuinely love each other. Amy grows up to be just like Dad, an appetitive personality who grabs compulsively at food, booze, and especially men. Only she’s not having any fun at it—some of the movie’s best gags involve bad sex, including the greatest bad-kissing scene I’ve ever watched.
The key to the movie’s problem comes when Amy plays that “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” game from The Idiot with some randoms at a party. Amy’s shocking revelation is basically that she had an awkward mishap with a condom. She has protected sex! Alert the League of Decency! It’s not even the worst thing done by someone in the group, and yet everyone acts like she’s Mary of Egypt. Amy’s huge crimes, when her nice-guy suitor takes her to a fancy party, are wearing a tight dress and taking an emergency phone call from her boss. She does have a drunken hookup with a sixteen-year-old… whose age she didn’t know, and with whom she never gets past first base. She transforms her life: throwing out all her booze, and going out of her way to prove to her boyfriend that she can make an effort and work hard for his love. There’s a point during the couple’s big argument when Nice Doctor says, “That got dark fast!” and, you know, it barely even got dim.
“Trainwreck” is very clear about right and wrong, and it wants to make sure that its characters never do anything too wrong. From this film future historians will learn what Americans once believed: that it’s morally wrong to acknowledge any emotional distinctions between stepchildren and children of your marriage; that gay people are people just like you and me (not that any of them appear in this movie); that promiscuity, drinking, and drug use are bad; that the first time someone says “I love you” should be an incredibly important moment, in a carefully curated atmosphere; that it’s normal for couples to argue and you’ve gotta learn how to fight well; and that kids are good for you and you should like spending time with them. I believe some of this and yet I still felt lectured.
I know foul-mouthed sexual conservatism is Judd Apatow’s thing at this point, but as a foul-mouthed sexual conservative, let me say: It’s possible to make movies set in a moral universe, where narcissistic self-destruction harms everyone, without being moralistic. I’d argue that “Withnail & I” is that story. It’s even possible to make moralistic movies about “personal redemption” without lecturing the audience. “Thanks for Sharing,” that Mark Ruffalo sex-addict romcom, earns its lessons on the power of friendship—and, crucially, it lets its characters do rotten things. It’s unfair to compare most movies to “Withnail,” but “Sharing” is more in “Trainwreck”‘s league, and (like Apatow’s terrific “Bridesmaids“) it’s much more consistently funny than “Trainwreck.”
Genuinely sleazy stories can expand an audience’s sympathies. If you let your characters get low, get sordid, while still loving them, you can prompt the audience to share that empathetic love for sordid people. You can suggest to the sordid people in your audience that they’re worth caring about—and to the clean people, that they might be more sordid than they realized. But if you want any of these effects you have got to let the characters be bad.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the forthcoming novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.