There's still plenty to like in Judd Apatow's rambling, improv-heavy comedies — from outrageous gags and filthy-mouthed tirades to those signature heartfelt moments. Yet that "plenty" doesn't always add up, as Trainwreck attests. Much like Funny People and This Is 40, this star vehicle for sketch and standup comedian Amy Schumer feels more like a treasure trove of future YouTube clips than a satisfying 125-minute story. As a whole, it's no, well, trainwreck, but it's somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
The trainwreck in question is Amy (Schumer), a Manhattan magazine writer who learned her attitudes about life and love from her dad (Colin Quinn), a cynical, womanizing asshole. While her sister Kim (Brie Larson) ignored Daddy's life lessons and is sweetly devoted to her sweetly bumbling husband (Mike Birbiglia), Amy lives it up as a cynical, man-izing asshole.
Brutally funny early scenes establish Amy's love-'em-and-leave-'em MO, her jerkish charm (also inherited from Dad), her unremitting narcissism and her terror of monogamy, which rears its head when her muscle-bound sort-of boyfriend (John Cena) wants to get serious. But this isn't just a comedy; it's a romantic comedy. So everything changes — or starts to, anyway — when Amy meets Aaron (Bill Hader), a nerdy sports physician so earnest and guileless that he stumbles through the minefield of her defenses and somehow emerges intact.
The two begin to date, but it takes a while for their relationship to weather the inevitable crisis. Schumer, who wrote the movie, has stuffed it with subplots and side business: Amy guns for a promotion; the sisters fight about paying for their dad's nursing home; Aaron shoots hoops with his best friend, LeBron James (as himself), and prepares for a tricky surgery on Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire.
While the first two plot threads serve Amy's character arc, the sports-related business eats up far more screen time than it deserves. When the whole movie stops for Hader and James to shoot the breeze over lunch, it's hard not to see these celebrity-athlete cameos as a naked bid to appeal to the dude part of the audience.
Granted, moviegoers aren't yet accustomed to encountering a female character who is unrepentantly rude, crude, lewd and the film's romantic lead (as opposed to its comic relief). Trainwreck milks a lot of legit laughs from that novelty alone.
But when the film tries to get deeper under Amy's skin, the lack of focus becomes a problem. There's poignant, believable texture to her relationships with her dad and sister (both superlatively played). Yet those elements keep getting shunted aside to make room for basketball cheerleaders doing high kicks or satirical takes on the glossy magazine industry. In Amy's eventual blow-out with Aaron, we glimpse the core of self-hatred that motivates her, but the film's finale feels like an obligatory shrug, not a resolution.
Trainwreck offers many incidental pleasures to compensate for its shaggy-dog qualities: Amy's rant about her indifference to athletics; Tilda Swinton's turn as a haughtily soulless magazine publisher; a faux-indie film featuring yet more celebrity cameos. Some of its scenes could become classics. But they're likely to do so online, where viewers can choose their pleasure — be it Hader riffing on James or Schumer delivering merciless put-downs — and ignore the parts that don't appeal to them.
As more and more viewers experience comedy in those sketch-size viral bites, the plots of feature films start to feel like footnotes to their set pieces. That's not necessarily a bad thing, considering the richness of the sketch format. But romantic comedies that are tightly plotted and funny — like, say, Tootsie, All of Me or Moonstruck — seem unlikely to reappear in the age of Apatow. If Trainwreck never exactly goes off the rails, that could be because there are no rails anymore.