Two Romantic Comedies: Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, 2015) and The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

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The latest release from the Judd Apatow empire opens tomorrow here in Seattle, written by and starring comedian Amy Schumer and directed by Apatow himself. Schumer plays a magazine writer with commitment issues and a fondness for wine and weed. Much to her surprise, she falls for a dweeby sports surgeon (Bill Hader) and must choose between growing up and reforming her ways or losing a swell guy. The film thus deftly flips the gender roles of a typical Hollywood romantic comedy, as it’s been practiced in film and television of the past 30 years or so. That reversal is the motor of the funniest parts of the film: Schumer’s assertiveness with her boyfriends (an agonizing attempt at dirty talk from John Cena) and Hader’s heartfelt exchanges with his athlete friends (LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire). Filled with the surreal-improv style comedy from the supporting players that defines the Apatow brand (it’s no surprise that the clear winner this time is Tilda Swinton), the film is dragged down by the shambolic, disjunctive approach to narrative that has also come to define Apatow’s work.

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Seemingly never content to tell a story in 90 minutes when it couldn’t more aimlessly be told in 130, the David Lean of comedy directors appends a dramatic parallel plot running alongside our conventional romantic comedy, with Colin Quinn as Schumer’s role model father, a serial womanizer, being put in a rest home. This strains the relationship between Schumer and her younger sister, Brie Larson, a suburban mom with a weird stepson and another kid on the way. The family material is tangentially related to the romantic comedy, as the father and the sister represent two paths Schumer can take, with an appended workplace comedy, with Schumer up for a big promotion at her magazine (run by Swinton), representing a third. Thus Schumer’s array of terrible options: The Ghost of Christmas Past (matrimony and motherhood), The Ghost of Christmas Present (the working life of a morally flexible Manhattanite in her 20s) and The Ghost of Christmas Future (slowly dying alone and miserable in a rest home).

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But rather than actually developing any psychological insight, these threads mainly serve as a pretext for Schumer’s (usually very funny) jokes. This gives the film the rhythm of a sketch comedy rather than a coherent feature film. Every minute with Quinn and Larson is time spent not fleshing out Hader as a character, a problem exacerbated by not even introducing him until 45 minutes or so into the running time, and the romance with Hader distracts from the family drama, such that neither half of the film ever feels lived in (the workplace stuff is pure, hilarious, farce). The only real character in the film then is Schumer’s, but other than the gender role reversal, there isn’t anything particularly interesting about her. The performance doesn’t have the meanness of antiheroes like Charlize Theron in Young Adult or Kirsten Dunst in Bachelorette (or Charles Grodin in The Heartbreak Kid): Schumer’s drunken promiscuity is more adorable than transgressive.

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This meshes well with Apatow’s career in mixing a laissez-faire approach to language and subject matter into traditional romantic comedy forms. Films like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up take a roundabout path to valorizing the traditional domestic union, but they valorize it nonetheless. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, indeed there’s something to be said for each new generation redefining historical relationship norms in their own moral and linguistic idiom, but it does leave me feeling dissatisfied. Trainwreck is likely to be extremely popular, more so than the far more adventurous approach to the genre’s  traditions that is Leslye Headlund’s Sleeping with Other People (slated for release later this summer) and while the main reason for that is the film is quite simply hilarious, I do wonder how much of its appeal is in the fact that it tames the wild woman at its heart.
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Playing tonight at the Seattle Art Museum is another romantic comedy, one featuring a resolutely untamable woman, Barbara Stanwyck, in Preston Sturges’s 1941 masterpiece The Lady Eve. Like Trainwreck, it is about an adventurous, disreputable woman who falls for a geeky man of science (Henry Fonda). Unlike Trainwreck, Sturges’s film bends the world to Stanwyck’s moral compass, resolutely deflating the priggishness of Fonda’s beer heir, exposing his class and sexual hangups for the frauds they are and allowing the two heroes the freedom to define their relationship on new, equal terms. Trainwreck attempts nothing of the kind because in its world, the Hader character is normal and the unconventional Schumer must learn to fit herself into the bourgeois system. Any freedom in the film comes in spite of its structural and expressed theme, in the joy of an expert performer at work (most purely expressed in a glorious physical comedy finale). The Philadelphia Story is the better screwball analogue, one of the rare films in the genre to depend upon the submission of the woman (in most examples, it is the woman, free of respect for obligation and social mores, who liberates the man).  In The Lady Eve, as in all the best screwball comedies from Bringing Up Baby to A New Leaf to Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, it is the man who must be taught the lesson.

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Of course, it’s hardly fair to compare a contemporary film to a masterpiece like The Lady Eve, and there’s really no point in using one film or filmmaker as a stick to beat another one. But the comparison highlights for me something that leaves me uneasy about Apatow’s work, an absence I’ve had trouble identifying over the years. No one went into production on a screwball comedy in 1941 with the expectation of making a monument to the power of the cinema. The Lady Eve was a prestigious production, to be sure, with big stars and expectation of a high box office gross (which it matched, finishing in the Top 10 for the year), but I’m certain that no one involved expected it to still be playing theatres 75 years later. They, like Apatow and Schumer, were just trying to make people laugh for awhile. The difference is that Sturges and his performers and crew weren’t content to be merely good, merely entertaining. They didn’t expect to make enduring art, but they did it anyway. I doubt Judd Apatow expects people will be watching his films 75 films from now, and I’m pretty sure they won’t.

Trainwreck opens everywhere on Friday, July 17th.

The Lady Eve plays Thursday, July 16th only at the Seattle Art Museum, on 35mm.

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