On Trainwreck and the Era of Apatow

I spent this entire movie thinking, “boy, this feels just like a Judd Apatow movie. What ever happened to that subgenre of R-rated comedy?”

Incidentally, Trainwreck is a Judd Apatow movie. And I suppose the experience of watching it, without extrapolating out that it is bad (it isn’t), does explain what happened to that subgenre.

Beginning with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, or if you like, even earlier with his TV efforts Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared (all excellent), Apatow established a kind of comedy that spoke to real, relatable life in a way that seemed not to ever have been present on screens before. Family Guy did something similar in the realm of animated sitcoms with its use of naturalistic, stammering or halting vocal inflections that sounded more like conversations between you and the people you know than anything which had ever been put in a cartoon (or sitcom, really) before that time.

These sorts of trendsetters in media deserve a lot of credit for practically inventing new voices in the world of pop culture which we would eventually come to take for granted. These stylistic advances are why, if you skip back through generations of film, television and spoken word entertainment, you can hear such differences not only in inflection, but in writing and delivery which would seem so unnatural to us now. The styles of modern media, for better and worse, are built on layers and layers of styles which appear simpler and less nuanced the further back you go toward the inception of mass entertainment.

When The-40-Year-Old Virgin debuted, there was hardly anything like it at the local video store or playing in theaters. Conversations meandered and people delivered jokes meant not to convey the talent of the writers, but rather to remind the viewer what it is like to be around other real people. A classic example of this is a scene in which Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd affectionately tease one another with an escalation of observations about how each knows the other is gay.

This was not brilliant or cinematic comedy writing. It was just funny people riffing in the less pivotal scenes of the film, in order to inject kind of true-to-life observational humor previously unseen at the movies. It was bleeding-edge by virtue of simply not trying so damn hard.

We ate it up back then. Judd Apatow movies gradually gave way to films written, directed, produced, or otherwise led by the starring performances of his many proteges. We were awash in films of this type, whether Apatow was attached or not and everyone saw these pictures. The clout that came with an attachment to these kinds of movies opened up for a greater and greater count of cameos by celebrities who often played themselves (the greatest example of which must be This is the End, where the entire cast are playing themselves).

And then at some point, the well just sort of dried up. We still have comedies, and some of them even star frequent Apatow collaborators. But this style of comedy, and really comedy as a genre, have declined greatly in popularity.

I wonder whether it has to do with how bleak the world has gotten? I know that at the start of the pandemic, I stopped listening to funny podcasts and my notorious problem of exploring new media seemed to rise up as well. I think these carefree people (whether portrayed as schlubby everypersons as in The 40-Year-Old Virgin or people who have the uncommon attribute of hanging out with LeBron James, as in Trainwreck) no longer feel relatable to us. They no longer resemble us. They aren’t remarkably under- or unemployed as we are, or if they are, they’ve having a blast of it. Their nation still makes sense and doesn’t appear to be in freefall toward fascism. Their neighbors aren’t committing indirect suicide because of the politicization of medical miracles.

What would you think if Trainwreck, The 40 Year Old Virgin, or This Is The End (particularly that last one) came out today? Wouldn’t it feel terribly out of touch with the state of things?

I don’t know whether these movies dried up because the audience or the creators were more disinterested. Seth Rogen, to name only one person whose career was launched by this kind of filmmaking, has moved largely into the realm of producing passion projects, and it’s likely this would always have been the case, even if we were still under the delusion that the train of the American Empire was still on its tracks. Audiences in the age of Netflix and Disney+ have become deeply enamored with high-concept, high-production, serialized escapist content which can be piped straight into their homes. Perhaps their interest has drifted too much for this sort of film to be financially viable anymore.

For its part, Trainwreck is nearly everything a cynical anti-Apatow critic could accuse his films of being. It is too long. Its unwritten, riff-driven scenes go on too long. It starts to make points, but never really finishes making them. Its very title is misleading, as the main character is hardly a wreck at all. For all the booze bottles we see her clean up during her “getting my shit together” montage, we rarely see partying as a major destructive force in her life. She is simply afraid of monogamy, which could have been plot enough on its own.

In the end, though, as an Apatow film, it did still have that modicum of realness that makes the viewer feel a certain sort of warmth toward its characters. Schumer is very funny and I wish she had more starring roles. Hader, as ever, is a delight just by being present. There are a number of jokes that really land.

But it’s so long, so poorly edited, and feels so lazily constructed that it could be waved as a flag to represent this subgenre of comedies and how tired even the people making them seemed to become by the process. When the creators know before it’s even made, and so do the audience know before they’ve even seen it, precisely how it will feel to watch from start to finish, and no one can even pretend to be excited about it, it gives a clear look at where these movies went.

I wouldn’t mind a resurgence one of these days, if the world is ever ready to embrace that kind of revelry for reality in its media again. Perhaps once everyone on both sides of the screen have had their time to cool off, stretch out their stiff muscles, and feel fresh and ready for this kind of thing. Or even better yet, once a new generation of comedians and movie makers rise to the surface. Booksmart wasn’t my favorite, but it was channeling some of this energy.

Anyway, this started out as a review before turning into something else. For me, Trainwreck is more or less a 6 out of 10, and I’ll quietly mumble that it is Good. It has enough of the things which made us love Apatow productions in the first place that you can’t be too displeased with it. However it also has enough of the stuff which made us sick of Apatow productions that you could skip it and never miss a beat.

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