By all the usual metrics, Trainwreck has been a smash with critics (85% on Rotten Tomatoes), so why does everyone seem so disappointed? Numerous articles have sounded notes of disillusionment at the way the film turns Amy Schumer, the politically progressive, button-pushing television star, into something a little more conservative. “Are there any modern comedies that hold their nerve, and pursue their radical options to a bitter end?” pleaded Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, echoing the complaints of Stephanie Zacharek of Village Voice, who called the film “a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.”
It’s understandable that Schumer fans would feel cheated. On television, she manages to get edgy laughs out of subjects as touchy as Bill Cosby’s history of sexual violence and rape in the military; in her big-screen debut, the feminist icon is systematically reduced from a sex-positive, single woman to a tame and domesticated leading lady. From what we know of Schumer, we would expect her script to celebrate a woman who acts the way her character does at the outset, but the film depicts her free-spirited ways not as a political statement but as something closer to an emotional affliction. Said Peter Knegt at the Indiewire queer blog /Bent, “It seems to throw the very people Schumer has been vouching for all these years under the bus.”
The only question remaining is why anyone is surprised. There were multiple signs that Trainwreck would feature a neutered version of Schumer’s foul-mouthed, hard-living comic persona. The first is that the film, although written by Schumer, was directed by Judd Apatow, whose works unanimously hold marriage up as the highest virtue. In 40-Year-old Virgin, the protagonist chose monogamy over casual hookups; in Knocked Up, a loser burnout opted for a conventional domestic life over bachelorhood; in Funny People, an dying comedian looks for redemption in the one that got away (now married with kids); and in This is 40, Apatow ran his surrogate fictional family through the gamut of domestic strife, only to have them magically decide to work it out at the end. To paraphrase Homer Simpson: in Apatow’s world, marriage is the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.
Schumer’s character doesn’t get married at the end of Trainwreck, but she might as well. When she agrees to give up her bachelorette lifestyle (including recreational use of alcohol and soft drugs) for a monogamous lifestyle with Bill Hader’s character, there is little reason to think she’ll never go back. This, of course, is not a plot device specific to Apatow’s filmography; it’s the way that mainstream cinema has always gone. Perhaps then we can surmise that what these critics are lamenting is that all the work done in the Twitterverse these last few years to change the culture in Hollywood has not yet had the desired impact. If they can neuter Amy Schumer, the misogynist Hollywood machine is still working just fine.
This may never change, or it may change so gradually that we won’t notice. The rarely-spoken truth is that nearly all Hollywood studio movies are inherently conservative because they reinforce the status quo. That’s kind of how pop culture works, especially in those mediums – studio filmmaking, for example – that need a widespread mainstream audience to be financially successful. In order to please every possible demographic, Hollywood movies pander to the lowest common denominator. Despite their best intentions, they remain slaves to commercialism, and while lots of flicks these days claim a mantle of progressivism, they have their political intent undermined by the exigencies of the marketplace.
The contrast is especially striking when it comes to romantic comedies. Bridesmaids, Obvious Child, and In a World… all were hailed as feminist texts for (in part) their sex-positive, nonjudgmental attitude towards their female leads, but in the end , each of those protagonists ended up with a nice guy in some sort of presumed domestic bliss. And while choosing a nice guy over the kind of womanizers played by Jon Hamm and Ken Marino in Bridesmaids and In a World, respectively, can certainly be seen as a sign of personal progress, there is something unsettling about a feminist text reverting to the same ending that so many regressive, misogynist films have used before.
But maybe that’s just where we are: A comedy, in the Shakespearean tradition at least, is simply a story that has a happy ending, but what qualifies as a happy ending is entirely dependent on society’s values. What our comedies are telling us is that very little has changed since Shakespeare’s time; our society still demands domesticity and monogamy from our romantic leads. Even a film as sexually bold as Fifty Shades of Gray ultimately undercuts its titillation with a startlingly conventional set of values. The film sold itself as a transgressive love story that promoted healthy experimentation with BDSM, but it ended up just the opposite. People may have come for the kinky sex, but they ultimately saw a story about a young virgin who ultimately discovers that experimentation often belies an unstable, disturbing emotional core.
Maybe our reach has simply exceeded our grasp. These days, critics and fans alike are working to hold Hollywood execs accountable for their lack of attention to gender diversity and other social causes, and certain gains have been made. But as we linger in the online communities where these discussions largely take place, it’s easy to forget that the people we align ourselves with don’t necessarily represent the entire public, and Hollywood movies have a way of reminding us just how slow real social change can be. In Trainwreck, it’s clear that monogamy, while not the hippest idea these days, is still our platonic ideal.