For a movie written by and starring a comedian whose standup upends sexual taboos and whose hit Comedy Central show often skewers different genres and pop-culture detritus, the most remarkable thing about Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck is how traditional it is. That’s not a criticism: Rather than trying to blow up and mock the romantic-comedy format, she and director Judd Apatow have constructed a smarter, funnier version of a familiar Hollywood staple. R-rated and tart as it is, this movie still has the same squishy heart and frank perspective on family and relationships that’s been a staple of Apatow’s more recent movies, except it doesn’t stare at its navel as distractingly as Funny People or This Is 40 did. Those who hoped that her first foray into movies would be as radical and bracing as Inside Amy Schumer may be disappointed. But at a time when a good romcom is practically an endangered species, Trainwreck is a blessed relief: It’s not tearing down the genre, it’s restoring it.
Part of the secret is that Schumer isn’t so much following a formula as she’s adding autobiography and feeling to a familiar boy-meets-girl blueprint. Like its star, Trainwreck’s Amy is the product of a divorce, and her father, Gordon (Colin Quinn), is now suffering from MS and confined to a nursing home, a decision that causes tension between Amy and her married, more settled sister Kim (Brie Larson). That’s the emotional framework that informs Amy’s every action, adding resonance to a story that, on its surface, is just another tale of a commitment-phobic young person who meets Mr. Right and freaks out.
That would be Aaron (Bill Hader), a doctor who specializes in treating and operating on NBA players like LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire. (Inexplicably but also consistently funny is the fact that James and Aaron are good buddies, and the Cavs star takes his own traditional romcom role as the leading man’s sounding board and wingman.) A writer at a Maxim-like magazine in New York City, Amy gets assigned to profile Aaron, and while he’s a polite, sweet guy, he’s no pushover: She may be convinced that monogamy is impossible—her beloved dad told her as much when she was a girl—but he’s bright and assertive enough to see that they have a connection.
This is the fifth movie Apatow has directed, but it’s the first in which he’s not credited with the screenplay. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Since The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up established him as a well-respected, highly bankable comedy filmmaker, he’s taken risks as a director, but also started to take himself too seriously: His recent movies can still be very funny, but they also shamelessly flirt with self-importance. Schumer’s screenplay gives him a template he knows to his core—the overgrown-adolescent main character who has to embrace adulthood—but perhaps because he didn’t generate the story himself, he’s able to see both the humor and the pathos from the proper perspective.
As a result, this is Apatow’s least ragged movie, the one film of his that doesn’t arbitrarily slow down at points for extended improv-ed riffs between the main actors. (This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments in Trainwreck where it appears that the cast is going off-script, but these brief interludes don’t stall the momentum with their self-indulgence.) This approach plays into the kind of classic New York romcom magic that Schumer and Apatow are after: No one will mistake this movie for the elegantly witty The Apartment or Manhattan (the latter of which gets skewered at one point), but its foul-mouthed one-liners and honest depiction of single people’s sex lives are all in service of bringing Amy and Aaron to a hoped-for happy ending, the promised land of any film like this.
Schumer fans already know what a potent comic persona she has, twisting her deceptively unremarkable All-American fraternity-gal demeanor to satirize gender roles and modern romantic conventions. Not only is she consistently hilarious, she taps into a new way of seeing relationships, whether romantic or with her girlfriends, that speaks to an era in which women are seeing a more equal playing field professionally, even if they’re still being held back by misogyny and their own insecurities. (Of all the many excellent sketches on Inside Amy Schumer over the last three seasons, one that hasn’t gotten enough attention was this year’s “I’m Sorry,” in which a panel of successful women never get to participate in a conversation about their accomplishments because they’re too busy feeling like they should apologize for everything.)
Trainwreck isn’t nearly as incisive as her TV show, but it does reveal Schumer to be a pretty formidable romcom actress. Funny we knew she could be, but her Amy is a sexy, confident presence with real depth to her. Her father’s worsening condition isn’t just a plot point, but part of the character’s slow evolution, impacting not just her relationship with Aaron but also her sometimes-prickly rapport with Kim, who grew up with her but seems to have learned completely different lessons from their shared unhappy childhood. This is a performance with layers to it, and Schumer is a modest revelation in the role. For someone starring in her first movie based on her own script, she doesn’t approach this as an ego stroke or with a self-deprecating meekness. Like the film itself, she’s poised and polished, her chemistry with Hader genuine without ever dipping into fairy-tale, puppy-love cutesiness.
So here’s where I should admit that as much as I loved Trainwreck, I’m deeply disappointed with its final stretches. For a film that’s so effortlessly likable and organic in its portrayal of Amy, Aaron, and their possible life together, the movie nearly capsizes in its third act, saddled with a truly unfortunate cameo-laden scene that takes too long and adds nothing, as well as a finale that feels beamed in from the many bad romcoms that have come before. (Plus, the film’s large supporting cast—which includes Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, and Vanessa Bayer—doesn’t always have enough to do.)
These hindrances are irritating, but thankfully not fatal, serving as a reminder of how difficult it is to make a good romantic comedy. At their core, these movies work because of their familiarity and reassurance: They insist that true love is out there and will triumph against all the odds. Most of us are smart enough to know that’s not the case in the real world, and that sad fact has powered so much of Amy Schumer’s superb, zeitgeist-y comedy. But Trainwreck succeeds not by transcending the game, but by simply playing it well. Smart people need love, too—and they don’t need to sacrifice their smarts to get it, even at the movies.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.