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Amy Schumer's Old-Fashioned Family Values

'Trainwreck' is a classic rom-com, not a subversive statement

Universal Pictures

When Judd Apatow signed on to make a movie with Amy Schumer two years ago, the brassy comedian hadn’t yet become a feminist icon. The role of White Female Comedian Eviscerating the Patriarchy was still being filled by Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Lena Dunham. Sketches from her Comedy Central show, “Inside Amy Schumer,” were not yet racking up viral hits, acclaimed for their brave political insight and criticized for ideological missteps.

But with mainstream fame comes certain expectations, and in the last few months, Schumer has been given—and perhaps too eagerly accepted—a mantle she can’t quite bear. People who go into Trainwreck looking for that Amy—the subversive truth-teller, the feminist role model—are likely to be disappointed. Their loss. Trainwreck is a surprisingly old-fashioned romantic comedy, the kind that rarely gets made anymore. (And certainly never gets made with LeBron James in a hilarious turn as the male sidekick.)

In the film’s early scenes, Schumer embodies a less needy version of the drunken slut persona familiar from her show, what she has described as the “dumb white girl character” she plays onstage. Her character, also named Amy, gets wasted and stoned and sleeps around, crawling out of post-coital sheets so she can run home before anything approaching intimacy can ensue. She has a muscle-head pseudo-boyfriend, played by wrestler John Cena, whose idea of dirty talk is “I’m going to fill you with protein.” She’s rude and selfish and unapologetic, and if the movie asks us not to judge her, it doesn’t ask us to embrace her either. “My friends are awesome, my apartment’s sick, and I have a great job at a men’s magazine,” Amy tells us at the beginning of the film, which is rom-com code for “I am lonely as hell.” When Amy is sent to interview a sports doctor played by Bill Hader, a happily-ever-after ending isn’t hard to predict.

Amy works at a raunchy men’s magazine named S’nuff (sample headlines: “A guide to beating off at work without getting caught” and “You’re not gay, she’s boring”). Given Maxim’s recent female-friendly relaunch, and the disappearance of the rest of the lad magazines, it’s a portrayal of New York media that’s about a dozen years out of date. But no matter: Tilda Swinton (caked in Boehner-orange bronzer) almost steals the show with her daffy performance as Amy’s brusque boss, and the setting gives Schumer a chance to zero in on the loony misogynistic messages of dude culture. 

Schumer based her character’s background on her own life: She has a father named Gordon (Colin Quinn), a philandering grouch with multiple-sclerosis, and a married, responsible younger sister Kim, played by Brie Larson, our most empathic young actress. (Schumer’s real sister, Kim Caramele, is a writer on Schumer’s show and associate producer of the movie.) The family drama undergirds the film’s emotional backbone, as Amy searches for an affordable assisted-living facility for her father and (“Places where the nurses don’t fuck the patients are expensive,” she notes) and bickers with her sister over their family legacy. Slowly, Schumer develops from parody-persona into an emotionally resonant character who managed to make me cry twice.

If you have ever seen a Judd Apatow movie, you should know how this ends: the overgrown adolescent grows up. Seeing the error of her ways, the drunken slut embraces monogamy, family, and responsibility. She even bonds with a child!

You can blame this conservatism on Judd Apatow (some already have) but Schumer has always hidden a sneaky old-fashioned streak within her raunchy feminist routine. Her best sketches don’t just highlight misogyny; they cruelly expose the lengths heterosexual women take to succeed in this culture, and the absurd ways we rationalize it. In “Gang Bang,” from the first season, Amy decides to, well, arrange to be gang banged, convincing herself it’s a radical feminist statement. 

As brutal as Schumer’s comedy can be toward institutional sexism, its real target might be the anodyne feminism of empowerment. As Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker this spring, “There are moments when Schumer’s comedy verges on Dworkinesque, nailing some girls’ willingness to eat shit, just to be liked.” That’s evident in all the tedious, un-alluring casual sex in Trainwreck, where Amy’s promiscuity seems more dutiful than passionate. There’s no judgment or moralizing, just a kind of boredom and repulsion. Trainwreck isn’t quite reactionary, but it isn’t revolutionary either. But why did we ever expect it to be?