A Hollywood romantic comedy is like Kraft macaroni and cheese. There is nothing nutritious about it and yet, it has an undeniably addictive power. You can add meat or vegetables to make it more interesting but, out of the box, it is the same, hideous goop. Generations have been raised on it despite wondering whether the cheese is real or if the pasta is made of rubber.
Amy Schumer looks like someone who has had enough of this goop. She has studied the formula and decided not to reinvent the genre, but expose it for how ridiculous it is.
Trainwreck, scripted by Schumer, may be an all-too-familiar terrain but the results are hilarious. It makes perfect sense that Amy Townsend (played by Schumer herself), an average-looking, boozy, insufferable, narcissistic cad should score an endless string of young and beautiful men and discard them ruthlessly. Amy works at an average and unfulfilling job as a writer for a magazine, with her dimwit office mate Nikki (a brilliant Vanessa Bayer) and the unreasonable, tyrant of a boss Dianna played by Tilda Swinton who—after The Grand Budapest Hotel and Snowpiercer—has swept Meryl Streep aside as the queen of transformative immersion into a character.
Amy is sent on an assignment to write a profile on sports surgeon Aaron Connors (Bill Hader). Aaron is the typical rom-com heroine, a unique species with such low self-esteem that they can only love the clearly unavailable and unlovable. He even has a BFF—the chatty and emotional girlfriend trope—played with amazing comic precision by LeBron James (as himself). One contrived event leads to another and Amy finds herself falling for the doctor. Then the requisite falling out happens over something trivial that only Hollywood movies can pass off as something significant.
The last act is basically how Amy takes responsibility for her mistakes, grows up within a matter of movie minutes from being a loser to a thinking adult, makes amends, and everything ends sweet and cute in a making-up and making-out scene. Like every other rom-com we have groaned through and rolled our eyes at, these nauseating, over-written proceedings are sprinkled generously with soundtrack moments, a manipulative mix of laughter and tears, and beautifully lit shots of people pouting. Still, it is magical to watch men be the butt of jokes. Through Aaron and LeBron’s characters we see how women have been absurdly stereotyped in such movies, a myopia attributable only to the fact that these characters have been presented to us through the male gaze.
“Gay jokes” have also been a staple of romantic comedies, and now many have added “Bi Jokes.” With rare exceptions like The Heat (2013, also written by a woman, incidentally) the comedy genre has made LGBTQ people the targets of offensive humor and rom-coms have not fared any better. Schumer refuses to fall into this bear trap. One of Amy’s many one-night stands is a guy named Steven (wrestling champ John Cena in a hilariously straight faced, memorable performance), a gentle character who is clueless about his own homoerotic tendencies. Amy is not grossed out by this more than she is by the speed with which Steven wants to settle down and have five children; that he seems to have it all planned out without her consent.
Later in the film—during a baby-shower party scene—a guest is wondering if it is too soon to expose a 6-year-old to the television show Glee: “I haven’t yet told my child what gay people are!” To which a simple two-word comeback by Amy, “They’re people” had the audience cheering raucously. When Amy has the pivotal fight with Aaron that leads to their falling out, her confession that she has slept with women draws laughs but it is funny because she’s speaking her truth and not just doing it for the gross-out factor. Schumer is receiving a lot of praise for her sharp and witty writing, but she is also an exceptionally good actor who makes every scene authentic and believable.
Trainwreck is not a feminist film as much as it is simply a spoof—a good one—of the tired, old way in which men see women. Across the globe, in Bollywood, a similar restlessness is playing out among Indian moviegoers craving for interesting female characters that aren’t just arm candy for male characters. Films like Kahaani (2012, dir. Sujoy Ghosh) and Mardaani (2014, dir. Pradeep Sarkar) have been winning awards and defying expectations at the box office. But these films are made by men and seem to be flipping gender roles without offering anything particularly original in the genre.
So long as women writers and filmmakers are not given the same freedom, opportunities, and budgets as men to make films on whatever subject they choose, feminism remains an abstract concept in both film industries. Artists like Schumer offer some hope, a dim lifeline. She’s like the piece of metal recently found in Kraft macaroni and cheese boxes by millions of consumers. But instead of recalling this product, audiences will see that they have actually struck gold, they will clamor for more and maybe one day we can stop dreading the experience of a Hollywood romantic comedy.