Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Munchausen Weekend

Trainwreck (2015)

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust." - T.S. Eliot
It was around hour fourteen of the two-hour screening of Trainwreck that I noticed something peculiar. Amy Schumer's face doesn't really move. It's strange, really. She appears to have the same expression whether she's laughing, or weeping, or thinking, or having sex. One must assume that this is a deliberate choice.

The most dangerous moment in any comedian's career is that moment when, flush with the first intimation of success, they recognize that in order to further their career it may be necessary to make the leap into films. Some, such as those who find great success in television, wisely never feel the need to stake their careers on such a potentially fraught transition. Those who do feel this need, however, soon realize that the skills necessary to succeed on TV and the stage do not necessarily translate to the silver screen. You can build a TV show around a stand-up act. You can't necessarily do that with a movie.

There's nothing like seeing a two-hour vehicle for a television comedian on the big screen to convince you that not everyone is meant to be a movie star. What might seem amusing or even perceptive in twenty-minute chunks becomes grating and dull stretched out to cinematic proportions. This is particularly true if you are a stand-up with a distinct persona that allows little room for elaboration or digression. Richard Pryor, even given the fact that much of his movie career was flawed, was nonetheless a very versatile performer whose comedic talents enabled him to succeed in multiple kinds of roles.

Amy Schumer, you are no Richard Pryor.

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." - Oscar Wilde
It hasn't been a good couple months for Ms. Schumer. Although the premiere of the third season of Inside Amy Schumer was met with characteristic fanfare, a backlash was in the offing. Although she has been lauded for presenting a staunchly feminist voice at a time when such voices are rare in the mainstream entertainment industry, her meteoric rise also coincided with a number of corollary developments in the field of feminism, and leftist politics in general.

Much of the criticism amounts to an interrogation of privilege: if one accepts that Schumer's comedy is at least putatively feminist in nature, doesn't it seem questionable that many of her jokes seem predicated on racial or ethnic stereotypes? Is feminism an idea that belongs to upper-middle-class white women at the expense of, well, every other type of woman? The defense for much of her racial humor has often been that the jokes are supposed to be read as an indictment of her stage persona - that is, the clueless judgmental pseudo-bimbo whose words reveal more about her prejudices than about the supposed subject of her jokes. The problem with this construction is that even if you accept this rationale on face value, you must still acknowledge that she is able to get away with saying these jokes in the first place because of her privileged position as a pretty white woman being paid a lot of money to tell jokes about other, less privileged demographics. The supposed sincerity of her desire to lampoon herself or her own demographic does nothing to efface the fact that she can frame her self-criticism in such racialized language because of her position of relative privilege.

This isn't a merely academic issue. (Or rather, it is a very academic issue, at least for me.) In Spring of this year I taught an introductory class on feminism. It turned out really well, actually, despite my natural trepidation. The most depressing aspect was how few students in the class - women especially - had ever actually encountered feminist ideas or literature. The most encouraging aspect was the number of students who told me how much they learned from the class, how much they enjoyed it, and how much of it they'll take with them going forward. I change up the topic of my Composition classes every quarter - to keep myself interested as much as anything - and this is the first time I have ever had students tell me that they thought I should teach this same class again.

I tried to structure the class at least somewhat inclusively. We began with fairly standard feminist texts: Sylvia Plath's poetry and A Vindication of the Rights of Women, as well as the slightly leftfield Margaret Cavendish, and even Jane Austen. (Persuasion is really fascinating in an explicitly feminist context.) But in the last third of the class I tried to introduce the concept of intersectionality, to get away from the idea of feminism as the exclusive province of the white upper-middle-class. Se we read Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye for two examples of trying to read feminism outside of the context of, well, people other than white upper-middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.

One sour note, in hindsight at least, is the fact that - for a contemporary representation of feminist discourse - I played the class an episode of Inside Amy Schumer. To my discredit I presented the episode fairly uncritically, noting her critique of rape culture (and providing a definition of rape culture) and beauty standards. But what I didn't pay enough attention to at the time was something that sticks out like a giant red flag to me now: all the sketches exclusively featured white upper-middle-class women, except for the "Milk-Milk-Lemonade" video, which presents WOC as voiceless dancers shaking their asses. Again, it's not hard to see how this is "satire," but it's also not hard to see that this "satire" still places the WoC in the position of being passive objects in the discourse of white feminism. I didn't call this out at the time and I deeply regret it.

In any event, even though - in fairness - Schumer herself never actually asked to be considered a role model or feminist spokesperson, she has still found herself in the unenviable position of being one of the most prominent outspoken feminists in the entertainment industry. Despite what Charles Barkley might say, putting yourself out in the media has consequences, and being taken seriously is one of them.

"When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche
Trainwreck was directed by Judd Apatow. This is an important fact to remember, especially if - like me - you walk into a movie advertised as a comedy expecting to see a comedy.

In the years since his initial successes (The Forty-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up), Apatow has fallen into the grip of the delusion that he is a filmmaker of some gravity. His last three films - Funny People, This is Forty, and Trainwreck - while advertised as comedies, would more accurately be described as exercises in public encopresis. They are messy movies that, you suspect, are meant to be messy, which doesn't make the process of watching them any less unpleasant.

I admit I have a soft spot for Funny People, for a couple reasons. One, I'm a sucker for the "comedians are really sad" genre. The movie is built around Adam Sandler playing an Adam Sandler-esque comedian who recognizes that he hasn't been legitimately funny in a very long time, but keeps signing up for progressively more idiotic "family" movies because the paychecks are simply too big. It was an adept performance in a saggy movie, one that actually succeeds in tempering my disgust at Sandler's latter day output with the acknowledgement that, at least on some level, Sandler recognizes that he inhabits a hell of his own making. The movie is overlong, poorly edited, thematically scattershot and rarely funny, but it was at least interesting.

So, despite the fact that Trainwreck is ostensibly an Amy Schumer vehicle, it is primarily a Judd Apatow film, one which slots in nicely with all his other "growing up" movies. The plot, such as it is, is pure Apatow: Schumer plays a woman with a permanent case of arrested development, having taken her father's resentful attitudes towards the impracticality of monogamy to heart. The one mildly - well, not "interesting," but at least relatively novel - idea is that the movie presents an inversion of the conventional romantic comedy formula. Schumer is the irresponsible, irrepressible wild child who actually does seem to be enjoying her life before running into a dour, slightly stuffy but somehow (I'm not sure how?) charming Responsible Adult (Bill Hader, playing against type) who convinces her that settled domesticity is the hip scene.

Did I mention the movie is two hours long?

There are two conflicting drives here. On the one hand, the movie wants to be a showcase for Schumer's comedy. Politics notwithstanding, she is (or can be) a talented stand-up with an ear for timing and confident stage presence. None of that is on display here. But even if that's what the movie wants to be, what it actually is is a Judd Apatow dramedy about the need to grow up and the selfishness of maintaining youthful pursuits past the societally-sanctioned deadline for domestic settlement. The result is a movie where the comedic elements float atop a rather turgid family drama like a wad of tissue on the placid surface of a clogged toilet.

To Apatow's credit, he's able to fill the movie with a number of talented actors and comedians who do their best to overcome his shortcomings as a director, and Schumer's shortcomings as a leading lady. It would be fair to say that Schumer has no screen presence whatsoever. This is a problem considering that she is onscreen and the center of focus for almost every scene. Surrounding her with supporting players like Vanessa Beyer, Brie Larson, and Tilda Swinton - motherfucking Tilda Swinton! - hammers home at every turn the fact that every other woman in the film would make a more interesting, appealing, and convincing lead than Schumer herself. Whatever may make her an appealing presence on stage or TV just disappears - vanishes in a wisp of smoke - the moment she steps onscreen.

Apatow's attitude towards directing is, at least in theory, generous to his actors. He is fond of setting up a camera and letting his actors go, unhurriedly, without a lot of quick cuts or distracting camera angles. In practice, this is a terrible way to film a comedy. The actors don't seem to have been given any kind of direction in terms of tempo, leaving many instances with two or more actors left to interact for extended periods of time without any perceptible acknowledgment of the passing of time. The laconic pace comes close in places to replicating a conversational feel, a creative decision which represents a tonal misjudgment of cyclopean proportions. Comedy, like horror, is all about pacing. Colin Quinn is someone who I usually enjoy seeing. But in this movie, he flops around like a fish onscreen, telling jokes without punchlines, comedic monologues without any laugh lines. He just . . . goes on, talking in a vaguely comedic way until the camera pans over to a delayed reaction shot from Schumer. It's depressing, which is fitting considering that Quinn's character is slowly dying of MS and finally kills himself with an overdose of smuggled pain medication. Which undercuts the humor considerably, but does provide a necessary beat in Schumer's character's growing-up narrative.

Some characters, like Beyer and Swinton, seem to think they're in a broad satire. Larson and Hader play the material completely straight. Method Man - motherfucking Method Man! - shows up with all of three lines, saddled with an over-the-top Caribbean accent for no discernable reason, but his interaction with Meyer at Colin Quinn's funeral kills. Barely three lines, but his joke at the funeral kills.

And while we're on the subject, Schumer's funeral oration for Quinn's character focuses on the fact that her father was an un-PC asshole who offended everyone he met, but was nevertheless remarkably funny and universally appealing, even to the black nurse who cared for him at the end of his life and whom he insulted on a daily basis (this is Method Man, incidentally). All of which is to say: it's OK for white people to be terribly racist and offensive if their hearts are in the right place. God bless them for telling it like it is. The world needs more of these blessed, brave souls.

One of the frustrating problems with Apatow's script and direction is that he's at least trying to do something interesting. For all the side characters and stereotypes that pass unremarked through most romantic comedies, he's trying to give them something in his movie, some kind of background or motivation or set-piece, all with the hopes of adding verisimilitude, some idea that this movie isn't taking place on an empty sound stage. You do walk away with a good feel - or at least familiarity - for many of the supporting characters in this movie, but this comes at the price of any coherence or forward momentum the movie may ever have had. By all means, give Dave Attell's witty homeless guy more lines. It won't hurt the movie at all to check in with him every half our or so to get his Hot Take on the action.

The most rounded and appealing characters in the movie are the stunt-cast athletes, John Cena, and especially LeBron James. Motherfucking LeBron James! He's not an experienced actor and his line readings are a bit stiff, but damn, he looks like he's a least having a good time! He's can tell a joke, and has good chemistry with Hader. He pokes fun at himself like a pro. Based solely on the evidence here, I can say with confidence that if James wanted a side career in the movies, he could do worse than emulating Jim Brown or Carl Weathers. He's got more screen presence than Amy Schumer by many orders of magnitude. If seeing Trainwreck has had one positive effect on my life, it has made me optimistic about the prospects of Space Jam 2.

(It does leave open the question, however, of just why LeBron James spends so much time hanging out in New York with Bill Hader, including apparently having free reign of Madison Square Garden and the Knicks' training facilities. And John Cena, while funny in his small part, is nonetheless saddled with a series of homophobic jokes that strongly imply that, because he actually cares about his relationship with his girlfriend and is not actively trying to sleep with other women, he must be gay.)

But everything else just brings us back to the gaping void at the center of this movie, one of the worst actresses who has ever been lucky enough to star in her own star vehicle, Amy Schumer. If this had been a different movie she might not have come out looking so badly. If this were actually, you know, a comedy, then maybe building a movie around Schumer's stand-up routine (as this one tries to do, complete with a recurring voiceover) wouldn't have been such a bad idea. As it is, the movie is left in the strange position of presenting a funny (or "funny") character in a series of progressively less funny circumstances.

Adam Sandler's career offers a refreshing contrast: instead of going for the gold with a heavy dramedy first time out of the gate, his first film was Billy Madison. That was a complete farce that summed up everything funny about Sandler's act up to that point in a neat 90-minute package that, wouldn't you know, has held up remarkably well. (Admit it, you still stop and laugh when you come across it on cable.) It was also, unfortunately, Sandler's peak, as every subsequent comedy would become an increasingly faded and increasingly more shrill photocopy of Billy Madison, and almost every decent attempt to stretch his acting chops would be undercut by terrible scripts (Spanglish, Funny People). (The exception being, of course, Punch Drunk Love, wherein Paul Thomas Anderson lit upon the brilliant idea of having Sandler play his trademark man-child comedy character in a realistic milieu, to tragicomic results. Who knows if Adam Sandler can actually act? Not me. But it really doesn't matter, because he's already insanely wealthy.) Schumer's attempts at acting are, frankly, embarrassing. There are a couple moments - as in, more than one - where we have to see a close up of her sphinx-link, never changing face crying. A single tear runs down her cheek, and her voice catches. You can almost hear, just offscreen, her acting coach mouth the words, "great job, Amy! You nailed it!"

"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." - Abraham Lincoln
Schumer seems likely to follow in Sandler's lucrative footsteps. While not a blockbuster, Trainwreck has nonetheless proven quite successful. More Schumer vehicles are sure to follow. In a market woefully starved for female-driven comedies, she is sure to find great success.

Would it be too much to observe that Trainwreck is, like its namesake, a catastrophic accident leaving countless fatalities in its wake? This is Nick Cassavetes directing a John Cassavetes script - or is it the other way around? This is an attempt to make a serious movie about grown-up feelings, not so carefully constructed over the shaky foundations of a bawdy star vehicle.

This is a movie in which the most interesting performance is LeBron James. It ends with a musical dance number wherein Schumer performs with the Knicks City Dancers. Schumer's character, having been fired as a staff writer at a Maxim knock-off for attempted statutory rape and assault of the magazine's sixteen-year-old intern, is able to walk across town to a new job at Vanity Fair, which is happy to publish her hagiographical account of Bill Hader's career as superstar orthopedic surgeon to the stars. Matthew Broderick and Marv Albert show up, as themselves, in the last reel, just because. The best part of the movie - legitimately, no-caveats funny - is a movie-within-a-movie that recurs throughout the film, The Dogwalker, a black & white drama starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei. Radcliffe plays the titular dogwalker, brought back to life and love by Tomei. Why is this a thing?

In the end we're left with the question, why did I do this? Why did I willingly subject myself to this movie? Simple, really: Tuesdays are $5 days at the local multiplex.

I'll watch anything for $5.

1 comment :

Nick said...

"If one accepts that Schumer's comedy is at least putatively feminist in nature..." Putatively, sure, but I thought Trainwreck was impressively regressive. I really wanted to like the movie, but from go we're led to understand that Schumer's sexual appetite is pathological, which is lazily connected to her father's justification of his philandering (Quinn's opening bit was the only real laugh I had during the film). Once she's slept with Hader, it's basically game over, if I remember correctly. It's not as if her character struggles with giving up her freedom. "This isn't working for you anymore," her sister tells her (which is really, I suppose, all dad's death amounts to, judgment passed on a lifestyle, he dies alone trying to kill the pain). Hader calls her out for sleeping with more people than he has. As you note, she hits bottom when they break up and she quasi-accidentally almost gets it on with a sixteen-year-old. Repent, slut. Which she does by literally becoming a cheerleader for her man (on the basketball court and in the pages of Vanity Fair). This is feminism?