Culture

The Politics Behind Trainwreck and Irrational Man

Promotional image for Trainwreck
Amy Schumer blows Woody Allen off the tracks.

Comedy czarina Amy Schumer designed her own big-screen throne in Trainwreck and got Hollywood vulgarian Judd Apatow to pad the cushion. Working from her own gag-oriented script, Schumer plays Amy, a magazine writer whose real career goal is putting notches on her bedpost. As Amy stumbles drunkenly through one-night stands, Schumer turns female sexual prerogative into shamelessness. This is consistent with the degradation of sex — and women — that Apatow presented in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Bridesmaids, preparing the masses for Schumer’s media coronation.

Trainwreck should be a wake-up call for anyone — especially for any conservative — who thinks pop culture is guileless, harmless fun. In the prologue, the juvenile Amy receives her misogynistic, alcoholic widower father’s advice (“Monogamy is not realistic”) and then patterns her life on those words — yet without ever considering their misogynistic, alcoholic basis. Behind this gag, Schumer blames patriarchy for Amy’s sluttishness.

Not really a sex comedy, Trainwreck is a comedy that uses sex to promote feminist permissiveness. Thus, it is an explicitly political comedy. Schumer’s schtick is to remake sexual, social, and gender attitudes: Amy tickles contemporary liberalism using a raunchy sense of privilege. She enjoys a sexual license reminiscent of Sex and the City’s material-girl protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw. Middle-class comfort and career exclusivity are the film’s real subject — as they also provide Schumer’s real-life never-acknowledged safety net. After an hour, Apatow finally cues her unladylike vomiting scene, but that doesn’t mean we have to vomit along with her.

Trainwreck is a comedy that uses sex to promote feminist permissiveness. Thus, it is an explicitly political comedy.

Yes, Schumer is cute — with a baby face, smooth white skin, bright blue eyes, flowing blonde hair, and a chubby but trim figure. Her Amy is definitely not the worst pick-up at last call. But simply joking about such two-way carnal desperation is less than revolutionary, less than revealing. Amy brazenly practices the same sexual habits as men, but then turns to girlishness — a need for companionship with a successful sports doctor played by the unprepossessing Bill Hader. It’s the same horror of spinsterhood — and Jewish-mother cliché — that the late comedienne Joan Rivers often ridiculed, only Schumer omits Rivers’s self-criticism.

Lacking Rivers’s old-fashioned sense of shame, Trainwreck’s story line has no dramatic consequence. It’s merely brazen, like Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls (also about a promiscuous female writer and also produced by Apatow). Subplots involving Amy’s dysfunctional relationships with a musclehead (John Cena), her ailing father (Colin Quinn), and her pregnant married sister (Brie Larson) touch on the idea that she pushes away anyone who gets close, but Schumer’s inconsistent screenwriting avoids complexity. When Amy mocks professional cheerleaders who “bring people together,” her snark — and her skankiness — continue. That’s the secret of Schumer’s liberal class appeal; she suffers no social stigma.

RELATED: You Don’t Have a Problem with Amy Schumer — You Have a Problem with Comedy

Schumer’s tampon jokes and gay jokes, female versions of locker-room humor, literally drag pop culture to the toilet. A girl-talk scene set in adjoining restroom stalls — one revealing dropped panties, the other panty-less (obviously Amy) — is just Apatow using women to show off his indecency. In contrast to the deep humor and emotional richness of Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, Schumer’s film can be seen to distort human relations into smut. Apatow has made raunchier films, but Schumer’s burgeoning career promises even worse.

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Trainwreck’s boldest joke replays the romantic bridge-gazing scene from Manhattan, but here Amy bends down to fellate her boyfriend. “I think this is where Woody Allen met Soon Yi,” she quips. This is not just disrespectful, it confirms Schumer’s project of cultural takeover, as a relative of the powerful New York senator and as a Comedy Central potentate. Let’s be clear about what that entails:

Schumer doesn’t simply use humor for social readjustment; like all Comedy Central performers from Jon Stewart on down, she aims to acquire cultural power. For some, this makes Trainwreck seem “fun” — like a Melissa McCarthy slobfest. As the latest model of Comedy Central’s stealth comediennes (following Janeane Garofalo and Sarah Silverman), Schumer disguises a noxious cultural agenda as personal fiat. She’s a comedy demagogue who okays modern misbehavior yet blatantly revels in PC notions about feminism, abortion, and other hot-button topics.         

#related#The obtuse political comedy of the Comedy Central network and Saturday Night Live has become a part of mainstream media hegemony; it perpetuates cultural division through comics like Schumer who flaunt their political biases (and political ignorance) as if ordained by Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and George Carlin. This political presumption has led to Schumer’s czarina phenomenon, in which her prankish vulgarity sets unquestioned social and showbiz standards. As with all Comedy Central acts, Schumer’s politics are taken for granted — that’s the nature of hegemony. (Ever notice how Comedy Central audiences respond to political jabs as if programmed?)

Every instance of Schumer’s supposedly radical bad taste — as demonstrated by Trainwreck’s Amy — is essentially bratty. Her lack of self-criticism prevents her from being a great comic; she’s just an enabler for the Left, performing in accordance with Comedy Central’s never-apologize-only-humiliate Saul Alinsky strategy. Trainwreck’s crudeness epitomizes how warped today’s political humor has become.

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Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man

“Philosophy is verbal masturbation,” says a character in Woody Allen’s latest film, Irrational Man. Allen’s by now overly familiar japes can’t match Amy Schumer’s filth. His own middle-brow filth returns him to a philosophical mode, as in his first murder comedy, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). In Irrational Man, he rehashes the earlier film’s existential quandary and middle-class philandering with Joaquin Phoenix as a bored college professor who experiments with killing.

There’s nothing behind Allen’s philosophizing, and his pretensions are getting worse — or at least more laughable. In this sense, Irrational Man is his funniest drama since the inadvertently hilarious Interiors (1978). Much of the highbrow talk is sidesplitting: “I loved your essay on situational ethics.” “Her passion for love and lust was contagious.” “The awful vividness of what I experienced grew less and less.” By the time Allen gets to “That usually reliable painkiller, the orgasm,” Amy Schumer starts to take on that glow at last call. Really, Woody Allen needs to stop turning out a movie a year and get down to work.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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