The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
By 2015, Judd Apatow had, love him or hate him, become one of the most dominant names in American comedy. On top of writing and directing, his name adorned an array of projects as a producer, many of which usually starred frequent collaborators such as Seth Rogen, Jason Segel or James Franco, who had made early impressions in the cancelled before-its-time Freaks and Geeks. Speaking about the cancellation in 2014, Apatow joked about how everything he had done up to that point had been a means of revenge against the cancellation of the series that Apatow had executive produced and Paul Feig created.
That Apatow also produced the Feig-directed Bridesmaids and which made Feig himself a behind-the-scenes force to be reckoned with was maybe an indication that it wasn’t as silly a joke as it seemed. However, the success of Bridesmaids was important and indicated something of a sea change for the Apatow formula that Trainwreck would run with even more.
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While the commercial success of the films that came off the back of Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up cannot be denied, there was the feeling that maybe it was a bit of a boy’s club, a fact that was brought up in a way by Katherine Heigl in her observations (that got her criticised by both Apatow and Rogen) that Knocked Up celebrated the guys by letting them have a fun time but made its female characters somewhat nagging creations.
The likes of Superbad, Pineapple Express and even the pre-40-Year-Old-Virgin cult success of Anchorman, which would spawn a long-awaited sequel in 2014 with the overstays-its-welcome Anchorman 2, all had a ‘boys will be boys’ mentality that had their moments of genuine humour and pathos (Superbad has a surprisingly poignant final scene), but the fun was all centred on and catered towards male characters who got to get drunk, act silly and be the kings of their comedic domains. Bridesmaids changed the Apatow formula up a little, but the success of the film was really down to Kristen Wiig and Anne Mumalo’s screenplay and what was arguably one of the best comedic female ensembles assembled for a film in a very long time.
It was during this period that Amy Schumer started to make her mark with a brand of comedy that was simultaneously female-driven but also shocking and daringly funny. Her sketch comedy series on Comedy Central targeted male misogyny and the patriarchal imbalance of life with gusto and genuine belly-laugh humour, but with stings that landed with a surprisingly emotional heft amongst the laughter. It was inevitable that she would make her move to the big screen and amazingly she would make her mark on film with a screenplay that would end up being directed by Apatow.
While Apatow might be the one directing the film behind the camera, this feels very much like Schumer’s film. It subverts the gender expectation you might be thinking we’re in for by having Schumer play a character similar to many that had been previously performed by a Seth Rogen or Jason Segel, but here it’s the female that is the centre of the story, is sexually active, drinks and parties too much, and where the lead male actor, in this case Bill Hader, is essentially the more straight-laced character reacting to the object of his affection’s antics.
What’s even more brilliant is that like her sketch comedy series, there is a pleasing sense of observation and criticism at the tropes that the film is in the midst of subverting. Guys get to have all the fun, but if a girl behaves in the manner of a Seth Rogen, Jason Segel or Paul Rudd character, it sometimes feels as if the audience is supposed to judge them in a manner that borders on slut-shaming; look at Julia Roberts’ character in Runaway Bride where something of an air of criticism hangs over her character throughout the film. That character never smokes, drinks or does illicit substances, and yet her behaviour is never explored in any deeper way other than to invoke jokes and innuendo from the townsfolk about her inability to settle down, and going from relationship to relationship.
What’s even better about Trainwreck is that Schumer’s character isn’t even looking for a relationship when it falls into her lap, and she attempts to reject it outright. The gentle subversion even extends to the casting of Bill Hader, the Saturday Night Live graduate who isn’t exactly who you think of as rom-com leading man material but who is not only well-cast here but builds genuinely great chemistry with Schumer.
Sex and booze are everywhere in the film, sometimes to a genuinely funny degree, particularly the former. The film gets to centre one of its funniest set-pieces around dirty talk during sex gone wrong, with John Cena’s character Steven and his inability to talk dirty proving to be one of the highlights, which the film then glorifies with a hilariously gratuitous nude scene and a well-placed towel that is amazingly the icing on the cake. That the film takes Cena, then more famous for being in the WWE, and basketball legend LeBron James, and has both deliver near scene-stealing performances makes the film even more of a hoot, and they rightfully gained a lot of great critical notices, but the film is Schumer’s through and through. Apatow might surround her with great male comedic performances, but some of the more quietly powerful scenes in the film are the ones she shares with Brie Larson as Schumer’s sister, a lot of which are amongst the film’s most grounded emotional moments.
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Like Knocked Up with Rogen, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin for Steve Carell, Trainwreck became something of an international calling card for Schumer and from here other comedy films such as I Feel Pretty and Snatched starring the actress were put into production, while many of her sketches from her Comedy Central series would around this time increasingly go viral in light of heightened awareness and conversations about gender inbalances and institutional and societal misogyny.
She might be something of a controversial figure for some, but her work as a writer has frequently shown her to be a keen comedic mind, while Trainwreck was an indication of a fine comedic actress capable of carrying a film. Better yet, for all the film’s brilliant observations and adult humour, it also works as a brilliant modern romantic comedy. Sure, it’s another tale of a girl falling in love with a boy, but the unabashed ability of the film to throw its oar into raunch makes it a wonderful piece of work, bolstered by genuinely laugh-out-loud moments that combine cringe with gentleness in some of its observations. That it will have you pondering the way the genre, and Hollywood comedies in general, deal with gender and character tropes is just the icing on the cake.