Turnabout is Fair Play – and a Great Movie

It’s interesting when someone becomes an overnight sensation, because they’ve usually paid their dues with years of toil. The overnight is of the North-Pole-in-winter variety. When they finally have their breakthrough, we get to savor their genius. In the case of a comedian, we get to laugh our heads off. Amy Schumer is having one of those breakout seasons that started with her show on Comedy Central and a couple of filmed concerts, and now has jumped to feature films with Trainwreck.

The first film for a hot comedian can often be an embarrassment. The hall of shame includes Ellen DeGeneres (Mr. Wrong), Billy Crystal (Rabbit Test) and Robin Williams (Popeye). On the other hand, Eddie Murphy struck gold with 48 Hours, though his career over the past decade or two has with few exceptions been cringe-worthy. However, none of the above wrote their first major movie. That’s not the case with Schumer, who has the sole screenwriter credit for Trainwreck. She matches her sharp wit with a deep understanding of character that makes the movie much more than a bunch of one-liners strung together. Trainwreck tickles your funny bone, but at the same time it sneaks up and pulls your heart strings.

You could look at the movie as Schumer telling Hollywood that turnabout is fair play. The romantic cad has been a staple of films going back to Tom Jones and Alfie in the 1960s and beyond. In Trainwreck, Schumer plays Amy, a magazine writer for a trendy New York publication. While she has her steady boyfriend Steven (John Cena), when she’s not with him she picks up guys for drunken sex but never stays the night or calls them again. The movie begins with the adolescent Amy and her sister getting a talk from their father Gordon (Colin Quinn) on why monogamy isn’t natural. It’s a stunning mix of bizarre logic and self-justification that’s funny even as you know it will completely screw up the child’s life, as it does with Amy. But then she’s assigned to profile Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor who’s pioneered surgery to save athletes’ careers. She seduces him, but he doesn’t play by her rules, and she finds herself experiencing a very scary new feeling – love.

In some ways a romantic comedy, even an R-rated one, is as constrained an art form as Kabuki Theater. You know pretty much from the time you settle in your seat where the story is going. What separates movies in this genre is not where they take you but how they get you there. Schumer excels in that with surprising comedy sequences that go in ways you don’t expect. Schumer is completely fearless in the role – especially so since she wrote it herself. She’s ably assisted by Hader who’s both human and humane as Dr. Conners, but who can also handle Schumer’s tossed off, did-they-really-say-that humor.

She’s also in the best of hands with Judd Apatow directing. He’s shaped comedy movies in the past decade with his writing, producing, and directing of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up along with individual writing and producing projects. This is the first time he’s directing a feature film that he didn’t write, but he works beautifully with Schumer and captures the nuance of her comedy perfectly. Hopefully they will collaborate more in the future.

A stand-out aspect of the film is the supporting characters. Much has been made of LeBron James playing a wicked parody of himself as Dr. Conners’ best friend, and rightfully so. He pretty much steals his scenes. However, there are other delights as well. You have Tilda Swinton almost unrecognizable as Amy’s hard-driving boss, while John Cena completely lampoons his wrestling persona. Colin Quinn’s performance as Amy’s father is enough to even give the audience daddy issues just by watching it. For movie lovers, there’s Norman Lloyd as Gordon’s nursing home friend, still sharp even at 99 years of age. There’s also a number of celebrity cameos; one of the funniest is by Marv Albert doing play by play for an intervention. A beautiful counterpoint performance is given by Brie Larson as Amy’s younger sister Kim, who’s pretty much chosen the opposite path through life but who still loves her sister.

Trainwreck should cross the $100 million mark at the box office this week, a milestone for an R comedy, and its showing good legs for a longer run into September. It’s definitely not a family-friendly comedy, but it is a funny, well-written and well-acted movie that’s satisfying to watch. In this case turnabout isn’t just fair play, it’s well played.

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