Judd Apatow

Trainwreck (2015)

This opinion piece contains spoilers.

There’s something about the oil and water with Trainwreck; the latest from director Judd Apatow and comedian Amy Schumer. On the one hand we’ve got an enjoyable enough crude comedy which sees Schumer as Amy; a problematic journalist who tries not to aspire for too much in case it gets in the way of her social life. On the other hand, we can feel the saccharine handprints of Apatow’s inability to reign in the pathos. A rot that set in with the dramedy, Funny People, some would argue. The sum of these parts being a patchy affair which see several plots overlapping for precedence.

The character of Amy is an extension of the persona Schumer has a made a career out of. Which, in a world where Seth Rogan has basically played the same character, even in Green Hornet, is not a point of criticism. Far from it. When we first see Amy returning from a one night stand, we‘re introduced to a character who totters in high heels on the line between being offensive, but not enough that it’ll stop you rooting for her. Even when later in the film her boyfriend (John Cena) finds out Amy has been in an open relationship without him, she is still the underdog to be carried to victory.

Meanwhile, Amy is also juggling family issues: a sickly father, who was largely absent in her formative years, and a younger sister who, despite smiles, doesn’t see eye to eye with her elder sibling. This where a lot of the ‘heart’ of Trainwreck is to be found. Amy’s father is sat grumbling in a retirement waiting to die, and her sister would rather he did so in a cheaper home. It’s hinted that Daddy dearest wasn’t father of the year. However, nothing really comes of this as it’s played out rather quickly that Amy is always right in this situation and little sister needs to suck it up.

It’s refreshing to have a female lead, and one that’s calling the shots on screenwriting duties. However, something just didn’t settle right in Trainwreck’s second half.

When Amy is given an assignment to cover Dr Aaron Conners, a sports doctor played by Bill Hader, they naturally don’t get along. Aaron is somewhat taken aback by her uncouthness and Amy finds the whole idea of sports rather boring. It’s kind of the set-up that helps romantic comedies defecate money on a regular basis. A couple of drinks and a one night stand later and Aaron is all in for a proper relationship. A surprise to Amy who was just looking for a bit of fun, and yet finds herself willing to give it a go.

Once Amy and Aaron are 6 weeks into their relationship, the strain begins to show. Not just on Amy’s face as she realizes she’s going legit steady with someone for the first time ever, but in the narrative itself. Trainwreck loses its way as we’re subjected to numerous protracted scenes that were probably a lot of fun to film but add nothing. Not because they’re superfluous, but because they’re dead ends.

During their first fight, Aaron confesses he struggles with Amy’s promiscuousness. First thoughts are that the film is going to tackle the concept of slut-shaming and the territoriality sitting heavily in the belly of men that stops them from accepting that women have, will continue to have, lives outside of the bubble of their relationship. Yes, Amy has had many lovers, but it certainly should not be the concern of Aaron, nor a litmus test of whether they can stay together. However, instead, the scene simply becomes a reason to display Amy’s inability to handle grown-up situations. But we’ve already seen that. We’ve seen it several times through the course of the movie. It’s a scene that mines for laughs when it could be courting character growth.

Yes, the argument could be made that centring the conversation on Aaron’s feelings takes Amy’s agency away. Which is a valid point IF it weren’t for the fact that soon after the argument we’re treated to a scene of Aaron grumbling about how ‘psychotic’ Amy is when she’s angry. It just smacks false. As too does the glib couple of minutes that are given to Aaron later in the film to think long and hard about how mean he is. Meanwhile, Amy takes on a decathlon of self-improvement, which oddly for our heroine mostly happens off-screen, because after all, she needs to change who she is if she wants to make her way in life.

The main issue for Amy appears to be her drinking. We are routinely told that her drinking is out of hand, but we’re never shown any true evidence of this. Well, there’s the scene where Aaron gives her some serious side-eye for wanting a second glass of wine at a luncheon. Oh and occasionally she smokes a joint, which is never shown to impede on her work or relationships. In fact, again, it’s only through meeting the straight edged Aaron that her lifestyle comes into question. In the paper, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, author Laura Mulvey discusses how the reality of the female comes second the want of the male. So whilst Aaron likes Amy for who she is, he seems to really like when she changes who she is. No one is asking Aaron to be like the straight-laced Dean of an 80s college movie; lighting up a doobie in the final scene and partying with the kids. However, there should have be some give and take surely. No, instead Amy is made perform literal cartwheels in transformation whilst Adam nods sagely from the sidelines.

With all that hanging in the balance, the second half of Trainwreck and conclusion – which is actually very funny – are dampened. Trainwreck has an enjoyable premise and is a lot of fun. Perhaps if the film was less about people making Amy change and more about her making changes, this would have worked more.

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This Is 40 (2012)

We first met Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd) in Judd Apatow’s surprisingly sweet 2007 comedy Knocked Up, wherein the long married couple provided the young and accidentally pregnant Allison and Ben with not just a class in Passive-Aggression 101, but also the perfect reflective surface on which to explore and examine their own relationship. Five years later and we are once again invited to glimpse into a week in the life of Debbie and Pete as they both face the milestone of turning 40. I fear however ‘glimpse’ may be the wrong word for a film that clocks up 133 minutes.

And therein, unfortunately, lies This Is 40’s huge disadvantage. Like so many of Apatow’s recent productions, the film’s bloated running time works against its favour. The problem with this film specifically is that with the thinnest of plots, what should be an enjoyable and insightful reflection on the recognisable stresses of family life becomes a meandering and aimless exercise. Sure, Pete and Debbie have a lot on their plates right now (although not cupcakes – now they’ve hit the big 4-0 high cholesterol foods are out, along with cigarettes). Debbie is curious as to how thousands of dollars has gone missing from the fashion boutique she runs whilst Pete is struggling to maintain the financial balance of his record company, and all the while two are wrestling with warring daughters and their emotional issues toward their own parents.

But all of these factors only start to come into relevance after a 50 minute slow start in which a host of needless cameos from other Apatow credits are trotted out (Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham, Jason Segel, Charlene Yi, Annie Mumulo…) to perform the now regulation improv scenes in which one character establishes a subject and another provides a list of responses that blend crudity and pop culture reference. Whereas in previous efforts like The 40 Year Old Virgin and indeed Knocked Up the best lines were cherry picked for the cinematic release and the rest saved for DVD bonus footage, This Is 40 just lets its characters keep going until the entire concept of pacing is lost.

What the film lacks in the comedic side, it more than over-compensates for in the dramatic. Every other scene in This Is 40 is an argument, and whilst some are heartbreakingly raw and nerve-hitting (particularly when Pete and Debbie’s heated discussion as to who of them is Simon and who is Garfunkel escalates into a far deeper examination of their marriage), the majority of them are irksome and annoyingly frequent, which is in no way helped by EVERYBODY SHOUTING ALL THE TIME. In fact, This Is 40 is at its best when it’s at its quietest. A simple shot of the youngest child playing keyboard over the muffled sounds of her parents yelling at each other in the other room, or the simple inquisition as to why nobody is talking at the breakfast table convey so much more with so much less.

In many ways, This Is 40 is a lot like Get Him To The Greek, the sort of sequel to Forgetting Sarah Marshall wherein Russell Brand’s rock star Aldous Snow was given the upgrade from supporting to lead character. As in that film, This Is 40 often shirks the humourous consistency of its source in favour of lengthy and indulgent character study, and whilst Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd prove more than capable of fully fleshing out their old roles and are given stellar support by Albert Brooks and the ever-reliable John Lithgow as their erstwhile fathers, it’s a shame the script doesn’t perform as brilliantly. The emphasis on the dramatic over the comedic unfortunately make This is 40 a tiring and frequently dull experience.

Flabby, often irritating and only mildly amusing, This Is 40 is a midlife crisis to be wary of.

The Five Year Engagement (2012)

Jason Segal and Emily Blunt play Tom and Violet; a recently engaged couple trying to organise their perfect wedding whilst their friends and family interfere and cause mayhem around them. So far, so generic rom-com. Then Violet is offered the position of her dreams in a post-doctorate program at University of Michigan. Agreeing to suspend the engagement, Tom gives up his career as a sous chef and buckles down to life as a sandwich maker at one of the University town’s many sandwich bars. Can their love endure the realities of life or will they choose to go their separate ways?

Not quite Knocked Up and not quite Funny People, The Five-Year Engagement seems to go for an uneasy mixture of the two and just about pulls it off. Everybody gets an opportunity to show they can display pathos as well as tell a fine dick joke. Whilst this cinematic equivalent of oil and water is not wholly successful, you can’t begrudge Segal trying to push the dramatic envelope a bit. We should all just breathe a sigh of relief that it didn’t become the painfully, self-indulgent mess that was Funny People.

No, the film’s major sin is that it is just too damn long. There is a good 40 minutes that could easily be taken out of this, mostly from the flabby, flabby middle. In the opening paragraph, it took me about three sentences to summarise what is essentially about 50 minutes of the film. In your average rom-com we would have got to Michigan under the 30 minute mark. Except we’re in Judd Apatow territory where the distance to the horizon is hard to judge. The Five-Year Engagement is a film that has no desire to rush to the end, confident that everyone is board for the long haul. Maybe a tad too confident. There are a copious amount of scenes that could be excised. For example, our viewing was deathly quiet during the 5 minute montage of Jason Segal having sex between sessions of Zumba. It’s also strange that a film set over a period of years, doesn’t actually give any indication of the passage of time. You will, at times, become completely confused as to how long it’s been in their lives. Okay, there’s Segal’s fabulous mutton chops to keep an eye on, but overall it’s like being in an isolation tank.

And there’s the other issue. As much as this website hates to agree with Katherine Heigl, Apatow’s films do tend to have that thin vein of misogyny that runs throughout. Sometimes, like a blue cheese, you kind of need it for the overall taste. And despite all it’s rom-com sensibilities, this is the same. Blunt  seems to get the blunt end of the stick (Ha! Pun!). Whilst she begins to fall under the singular charms of the utter cad that is Rhys Ifans, Segal writes himself in as the man who has to brushed aside the advances of numerous Michigan women. It seems so uneven and unfair.

At the end of the day, The Five-Year Engagement knows its genre and manages to tick 60% of all the boxes. There are some brilliant jokes (Best man, Chris Pratt, listing all of Segal’s previous lovers to the tune of We Didn’t Start the Fire is a particular highlight) and everyone seems to be having the time of their lives. The problem is we just expected so much more from the people who brought us the joy The Muppets.