Romcoms, I have long maintained, are the very worst movie genre. Give me schlocky horror films any day, featuring a string of hammy actors being killed with kitchen implements. Or terrible action movies in which explosions are used in lieu of plot points. Or made-for-TV dramas starring tragic women in budget fat suits. Or anything featuring sharks in a tornado.
The problem with romcoms – compared to these other fine specimens of modern cinema – is the inevitability of the ending. No matter how leftfield the plot, you always know you’re headed towards a tiresomely predictable moral message.
By the time you’ve finished your popcorn, the womaniser will have been reformed. The stoner bro will have stopped playing so many video games. The manic pixie dream girl will have opened the hero’s eyes to the infinite wonders and mysteries of the universe, and the career woman (because apparently having a job is a character trait, not a financial necessity) will have realised that work alone does not fill the chasm within. Whatever their flaws, the protagonist will find redemption, and they’ll find it through the transformative powers of LOVE.
It’s a deeply conservative genre, is my point. I don’t think you can say that about Sharknado.
Anyway, the big romcom of the summer has been Trainwreck, which was directed by Judd Apatow and written by its star, Amy Schumer. I generally like Schumer’s sketches and persona, so was keen to see how this would translate to the big screen. Her schtick is basically ‘cherubically brash mischief-maker’ – she’s known for sending up Hollywood ageism and sexism and falling over on red carpets. Surely she’d be down for subverting the usual stale romcom tropes too?
Sadly, this was not to be. While the film is fun on the surface, deep down it’s more like a disapproving aunt at a family gathering, who shakes their head sadly at your Lambrini consumption and demands to know when you’re going to pop out her first great-nephew.
Amy plays a version of her usual persona – the purported ‘trainwreck’ of the title, who drinks too much, enjoys the occasional herbal high, and likes to sleep with lots of men but never, ever sleep over. Unlike her sketches, the film provides the notional roots of this behaviour: her dad indoctrinated her during childhood that ‘monogamy isn’t realistic’. And while her sister has followed the time-honoured path of rebelling against one’s parents (“getting married and having children is what people do!” she proclaims), Amy is her father’s daughter.
Now, Urban Dictionary defines ‘trainwreck’ as “a total fucking disaster… the kind that makes you want to shake your head”. But Amy’s behaviour prompts more of a “you do you” kind of shrug. If we’re supposed to believe that her drinking / weed smoking / sexual prowess is indeed a total fucking disaster, then that’s hard to square with the fact she’s having quite so much fun.
Schumer plays this role with comic brio. She’s self-sufficient, fully in control of her love and sex life, partying more because she enjoys it than because she’s miserable, and occupying space with a swagger. To her own self, she’s being true. Sure, we get a glimpse into some of the issues and vulnerabilities that may underpin this persona. But it’s a caricature that people have warmed to in her comedy; very I Am Woman Hear Me Roar.
Of course, this being a romcom, Amy is contractually obliged to find LOVE / redemption and discover the error of her ways. So naturally, she meets a philanthropic sports doctor, and the rest of it is exactly as you’d expect. Romantic bliss, followed by a bust up, followed by lessons learnt, followed by heartwarming denouement. She gives up the booze and weed, disavows her former hatred of sport, changes her entire character, and wins back her man. YAWN.
If the finale leaves an odd taste in the mouth, that’s not just because it’s formulaic but because it doesn’t quite fit with the rest. In contrast with Amy’s devil-may-care exuberance, her sister’s life is drawn to seem as dreary as possible – boring husband, precocious stepson, easily-shocked friendship circle, no suggestion that marriage and kids might contain any adventures in their own right.
Choosing this path, therefore, means choosing self-sacrifice and duty over an appetite for life. And while it’s obviously good to hold back on your own self-interest sometimes, a lot of stuff is thrown away in the midst of this didactic thrust. What happened to Amy’s independence? Her boldness? Her unapologetic script-flipping; her determination to follow a path that still seems shocking in women but is rarely chastised in men? Because of the way this has been set up, it’s hard to be all “Yay! LOVE!” without feeling like something’s been lost along the way.
I’m not the right audience for romcoms (though I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, if that counts). But hell, I was expecting better from the person touted as the upcoming comedian du jour. Trainwreck is funny in parts, but in the interests of being a summer blockbuster, feels the need to veer onto disappointingly conventional tracks.
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