Trainwreck: Funny, outrageous adult comedy

Anyone wondering if Amy Schumer will be a movie star can rest assured that the stand-up sensation should have a solid career if she continues making films as charming and human as Trainwreck.

The comedienne brings to mind a young Lily Tomlin who made a similar leap from television to film in the early 1970s. Like Tomlin, Schumer focuses on character more than jokes, relationships more than punchlines. And, in the tradition of Tomlin’s Ernestine and Edith Ann, Schumer willingly reveals the weaknesses of her characters to advance the narrative.

As a screenwriter, though, Schumer doesn’t know when to stop. Her script for Trainwreck plays like a series of comic sketches without the disciplined structure that a movie narrative demands. At first, this doesn’t matter, because Schumer is such an engaging actress. But as the film continues — especially in its third act after most of the jokes have been told — someone should have taken scissors to the script to trim the excess. We’re left thinking that somewhere in this 120-minute film lives a 90-minute version waiting to be seen.

But so much in Trainwreck works that it’s easy to overlook the weaknesses. From her first moment, Schumer is marvelous as a young writer whose pursuit of fun gets in the way of her investments in relationships. When she meets a doctor — while on assignment for her magazine — she begins to wonder if he could bring something new to her familiar patterns. Is she capable of authentically caring for someone? Could she be growing up? And can people discover who they are by reaching beyond themselves to care for others?

Of course Schumer is too precise a writer and performer to let sentiment get in the way of the humor. Her biting wit reinvents the notions of romantic comedy by playing with traditional roles and familiar conventions. The cast helps. Bill Hader shines as a hero who is seldom heroic, while Brie Larson delights as a sidekick sister who fails to provide that unconditional support sidekicks are supposed to provide. Tilda Swinton is devastatingly funny as the exaggerated boss who uses too much spray tan and LeBron James makes a funny film debut as a basketball player who savors, of all things, Downton Abbey. Standing center screen, Schumer wisely makes us use our heads to absorb the subtle precision of her comedy. Her keen ability to observe and report human behavior makes Trainwreck a memorable look at the follies people experience when they try to love — even if she and director Jud Appetow don’t know when we’ve had enough.

One note of caution. As much as a family may enjoy seeing a romantic comedy together, this is not a film for children. Parents, in fact, could be quite uncomfortable explaining some of the things that Schumer says and does. Adults who see the film, though, will cherish the discovery of a new movie star. Amy Schumer takes command of the camera with the same ease she connects with audiences in her live performances and on television. She is a total delight. I can’t wait until she makes another movie.

Film Nutritional Value

Trainwreck

* Content: High. Amy Schumer brings all of her comic expertise from stand up and television to the big screen in a delightful film as writer and star.

* Entertainment: High. Thanks to engaging performances from Schumer, Bill Hader, Tilda Swinton and Lebron James, Trainwreck succeeds despite running too long.

* Message: Medium. Romantic comedies are rarely message films. But this one sure is fun. For adults.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to laugh this much, and savor such characters, is always relevant.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You will find yourself remembering many moments. But this is not a film to share with children. Of any age.

(Trainwreck is rated R for “strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use.” The film runs 125 minutes.)

4 Popcorn Buckets

Let’s Talk Movies

With Trainwreck, Amy Schumer joins a collection of comediennes who have made the leap from television to movies. And, while Schumer makes this transition with ease, some of her predecessors did a bit better than others.

Let’s take a look.

Goldie Hawn

She was – in the 1960s – the goofy blonde who stole the show on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In. Then, as the decade closed, while still doing the show, she came from nowhere to win an Oscar for her supporting performance in the comedy film Cactus Flower opposite Ingrid Bergman and Walter Matthau. She continued to make popular comedies – including Butterflies Are Free, Foul Play and Private Benjamin into the 1970s and 1980s – while her dramatic films (including Swing Shift, The Girl from Petrovka and Best Friends) were less successful. While she consistently demonstrated more range than her roles would show, she returned to comedy in the 1990s with The First Wives Club and Everyone Says I Love You. She remains an enduring star who smartly stays within a limited range that people expect. But there’s much more.

Lily Tomlin

Like Goldie Hawn, Tomlin used her Laugh In stardom as a foundation for a leap into the movies. Unlike some other comediennes, though, she has created a rich career as noted for her dramatic performances as for when she tickles with her character-driven humor. After being nominated for an Oscar for a dramatic role in Nashville in 1975, she successfully varied her films between comedy (9 to 5 and All of Me) and drama (The Late Show and Short Cuts). She also won a Tony for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadway in 1991 and, this year, is up for an Emmy for her work on the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. And she is gathering real Oscar buzz for her performance in the upcoming Grandma. Along the way she has become a national treasure who performs with authority no matter the medium.

Tina Fey

Like Hawn and Tomlin, Fey leveraged a hit television show (30 Rock) into a film career. Unlike the others, she has yet to find a reel rhythm on the screen. For whatever reason, she can’t reach beyond simply playing Tina Fey. While her script for Mean Girls is piercing, her performance in the film lacks focus. While she and Amy Poehler stand out as hosts of The Golden Globe Awards on television, their screen comedy Baby Mana feels predictable and forced. While her work in the romantic comedy Admission opposite Paul Rudd – is credible enough she fails to ignite the screen with much compassion. And while her work in This is Where I Leave You is earnest, she misses the essence of the character. Someday, someone will write the part, and she will make us stand up and remember. Or she will write it for herself.

Lucille Ball

The queen of television comedy actually started her career in the movies. She was a glamorous supporting player in MGM films of the 1940s before taking a chance on a new medium called television in a new form called the sitcom. With husband Desi Arnaz she made history as Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy and continued to dominate television comedy with two subsequent series. But her movie career was a mixed bag. In the mid-1950s she and Desi leveraged their television personalities into the comedy The Long, Long Trailer about newlyweds who discover that pulling a trailer isn’t a vacation after all. And, in the early 1960, she and Bob Hope scored as friends who consider an extramarital affair in The Facts of Life. After scoring a hit in 1968 as the mother of 19 children in Yours, Mine and Ours, she was severely criticized for her well-intentioned work in the movie version of Mame in 1974. Despite being too old for the role – and limited in her singing and dancing abilities – Ball brings real heart to the character. And her work in the film’s final third is very touching. It feels as if director Gene Saks finally let her simply be Lucy. And that’s who we love.

As Amy Schumer continues her march to big screen success, she can learn a few things from the women who made the journey before her.

See you at the movies.

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