AUSTIN, TX: “Judd Apatow is like an oracle,” Amy Schumer says of the director of her new starring vehicle Trainwreck, which premiered Sunday at the SXSW Film Festival. “If you look at people that are huge stars now, he put them in movies before you knew who they were, and he just has a good sense.” Then, as she does onstage, she catches herself, hears herself, and continues, “Not that I’m saying, like, ‘Guys, this is the last time you’ll see me, I’m about to blow up,’ but I’m saying…” We laugh, and she laughs, but it’s not exactly a joke; based on Trainwreck’s gangbusters reception, Amy Schumer is about to be a major movie star. And we’re ready for it.
At a conference conversation Monday afternoon, she talked a bit more about the story’s closeness to her own life and experiences. “On my TV show, I love playing a monster,” she says, “the worst idiot I can think of — which is funny because I lot of girls will come up to me like, ‘I’m you!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m making fun of this!'” But her stand-up persona has veered away from the character of a “deranged, Stepford Wife-looking woman, saying really racist things” to something “closer and closer to who I really am.”
The character she plays in Trainwreck — named, coincidentally enough, “Amy” — has a different last name and a different job (she’s a magazine writer). But many of her vices are the same, at least based on what Schumer’s told us about herself onstage: she drinks, she smokes pot, she has a lotta sex, and she keeps most of the people in her life at a distance via her cutting wit. And that’s all fine until she meets a sports doctor (Bill Hader) and finds herself in what looks and feels and sounds a whole lot like a monogamous relationship with a far more stable dude. In other words, it’s the kind of movie Apatow does really well, but with Schumer in the Seth Rogen role.
That little gender swap caused a bit of a commotion among stupid people, with columnists like garbage person Jeff Wells objecting to the film’s premise because he didn’t find Schumer attractive enough. She says she wasn’t bothered personally by his comments (“Someone saying that I’m physically disgusting doesn’t change my heart rate or the course of my day at all. I truly, from the bottom of my heart, do not give a shit about that”). In fact, she sees the good in it, “because people were angry with him for saying that stuff about me, and it let people know, We’re OK with women who aren’t Victoria’s Secret models. We can actually fathom that somebody could stomach fucking her.”
A stupid little tempest like that one accentuates how, even casually, Schumer is put in the position of being a feminist (even when that’s not what the work’s explicitly about), and unlike some of our dimmer celebrities, she embraces it. “I wanna get it tattooed on my clit,” she announces, triumphantly. “I think people don’t know what the word feminism means.”
“What does the word feminism mean?” asks interviewer Danielle Nussbaum. And Schumer replies, without missing a beat, “Well, I’m one of those people… No, social and political equality for women. I think if you’re against that, you’re crazy, you’re a crazy person.”
Schumer’s carved out a unique voice on- and off-stage; it’s invigorating to see it on the screen, crafting a portrait of a complicated protagonist who likes to pretend she’s got it all figured out, and is right on the verge of falling apart. It’s a wonderful performance, with Schumer (who revealed Monday afternoon that she’s not some moonlighter, but an experienced actress trained in the Meisner Method) handling comic and dramatic beats with equal aplomb.
Trainwreck comes to SXSW labeled as a “work-in-progress,” and though the version of the picture we saw looks pretty close to done, it could indeed use some work. In its current form, director Apatow can’t quite synthesize the comic and dramatic material as smoothly as in earlier efforts; as it is, the movie too often stops one cold, even clunkily, while veering towards the other. (A funeral scene does both, and well, indicating that it can be done here.) It’s another in a long line of movies where it’s better to just tell us our protagonist is a good writer than to actually try to prove it; the voice-over of her big article is so bad, it throws off the credibility of the narrative. (Call it Never Been Kissed Syndrome). LeBron James ends up being the picture’s secret comic weapon — a pal of Hader’s doctor character, he’s always offering up totally useless analogies and Cleveland boosterism, while they get a good running gag out of him being a cheapskate (figuring out who owes what on a lunch check, he scolds, “I don’t know how long this is gonna last!”). But the film is so loaded with celebrity cameos that famous-face fatigue sets in by the end.
Yet all that stuff is fixable, and ultimately of minor importance. Trainwreck is a welcome movie both in theory (summer studio comedy written by and starring a tough, uncompromising female artist) and in practice (it’s just funny as hell). And Schumer frankly seems too raw to be “handled,” or to go Hollywood anytime soon; when Nussbaum asked if Trainwreck was the original title, Schumer replied, “It was always Trainwreck. It was gonna be Trainwreck or Cum Dumpster…” When the laughter died, she continued, “My publicist had to fly out early, so that’s her fault, that I just said that…”
Trainwreck is out in July.