Jane Austen would have appreciated Amy Schumer’s blockbuster summer rom-com Trainwreck. With its flawed protagonist, who alternately feels superior to those around her and unworthy of love, the film draws on themes that could have come straight out of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Like Austen, Schumer knows how to give the people what they want: girl meets boy, conflict and misunderstandings arise, but ultimately romance wins out. Less obviously, both Austen and Schumer share a penchant for feminist comedy that calls into question the traditional premises of the heterosexual love story.
Trainwreck’s opening scene challenges the ideal of happily ever after. A 9-year-old version of the movie’s heroine, Amy (Devin Fabry) and her 5-year-old sister Kim (Carla Oudin) sit on the hood of a car listening to their father (Colin Quinn) explain why he and their mother are getting divorced. “Monogamy,” he gets them to repeat, “is unrealistic.” The film’s basic premise arises from this incongruous origin scene. Adult Amy (Schumer) embraces the father’s message and embarks on a commitment-averse lifestyle while adult Kim (Brie Larson), rejects his lesson, marries and settles down. In this sense, Amy acts more like a stereotypical man than a woman. She binge drinks, takes the lead in sex, and disparages sentimentality.
On one level, the movie seeks to rehabilitate Amy by introducing her to the pleasures of monogamy. She meets the extremely nice-guy hero, Aaron (Bill Hader), when Dianna (brilliantly performed by Tilda Swinton), the viciously snarky editor of the men’s magazine where Amy works, forces her to write a profile piece on his work as a sports surgeon. The love story between Amy and Aaron begins as a classic opposites-attract pairing. He’s mild, she’s wild; he’s a responsible nerd, she’s a reckless party girl. If the film reverses the typical gender paradigm, putting a woman in the hard-drinking libertine role usually occupied by a man, it appears to do so for pretty conventional reasons—to tame the unruly character and bring that person into the domestic fold.
More subtly, however, Trainwreck makes the point that Amy’s flaws do not fully define her, and that romantic love doesn’t have to conform to tradition. The movie undercuts the obvious stereotypes about women and men that are the mainstay of most romantic comedies. One feminist subplot is that Amy is a witty and skillful writer who is squandering her talents and who ought to be doing better work. The magazine Amy works for is called S’Nuff, a parody of “lad mags” that reinforce the worst aspects of heterosexist masculinity. It’s a trashy publication that objectifies women and reduces men to a lowest common denominator. In editorial meetings, writers vie for Dianna’s attention by pitching stories that range from prurient—how to jerk off at work—to outright offensive—are you gay or is she just boring?
One of the most romantic things Aaron does when he and Amy start falling for one another is express his respect for her writing. She’s embarrassed when he says he has read some of her S’Nuff articles, but he calls her work “funny and smart” and identifies it as “satirical” (an indication that Amy’s stories might be slyly mocking the content of the magazine). And, even though she makes the first move and maneuvers him into having sex, he shows his respect for her by wanting to talk and spend time with her outside of the bedroom. By making Aaron a consistently kind, generous, open-hearted person, Trainwreck offers up a Jane Austen-worthy hero of the Edward Ferrars/Edmond Bertram/Henry Tilney variety.
Aaron’s best friend, LeBron James (playing himself) is a Downton Abbey-viewing proponent of true love, bent on protecting his buddy from heartbreak. In many ways, the sports backdrop contributes to the film’s playful redefinition of gender stereotypes. Aaron may be a nerd—ultimately deemed too boring a subject for S’Nuff by Dianna, who replaces Amy’s profile of him with a story about “ugliest celebrity kids under 6″—but he’s a gifted sports surgeon, a brainy man who gains the admiration of celebrity players because he can miraculously repair their injuries. His involvement with Doctors Without Borders cements his credibility.
Bill Hader brings tenderness and grace to a role that can be hard to pull off: an utterly likable, sensitive man. He plays the straight man to Schumer’s comic heroine, a dynamic that comes up in their initial encounter when she pretends to know something about sports and starts rattling off fake team names. Instead of laughing at her, he laughs with her and acknowledges that he wasn’t really interested in sports either until he started performing surgery on athletes. It’s a line that gets dropped in casually, but it makes clear that the movie is not using sports as a way to distinguish between men and women. When Amy attends a game with Aaron and derides the cheerleading dancers—”you’re going to lose us the right to vote,” she yells—he praises their athleticism, a point that gets underscored when one dancer seeks him out to take a look at her injured ankle. Doctors, athletes, dancers—the movie values people who are good at what they do rather than those who, like Amy at S’Nuff, throw their talent away.
At the feminist heart of the movie is Amy’s relationship with her sister, Kim. Survivors of their parents’ train wreck of a marriage, their mother’s death, and their father’s worsening multiple sclerosis, the two sisters initially choose polar opposite paths to fulfillment. Initially, Amy takes after her father, but it would be an oversimplification to say that Kim becomes her mother. She marries a man who has a child from a previous marriage, and although there are plenty of jokes about her snooze-inducing home life, the biggest repudiation of Amy and Kim’s father’s lifestyle comes when he makes fun of Kim’s step-son, the ultra-nerdy Allister (Evan Brinkman), and refuses to see him as a grandchild because he is not Kim’s biological child. In a scene that builds in intensity, the father laughs about Allister being the kind of kid he used to beat up on the playground, and he reveals that Amy has joked that Allister “pees sitting down.”
This is just one instance of the father’s faults—he’s bigoted, racist, sexist, homophobic and generally intolerant—but it highlights the mean-spiritedness that Amy risks adopting when she identifies too closely with his worldview. Amy is mortified to have her sister hear what she said about Allister, and even though she is not quite ready to change her ways, this scene clarifies the movie’s values. Here, readers of Jane Austen might recall the moment when Emma inappropriately ridicules the less fortunate Miss Bates and how that heroine must learn to view those around her with more compassion.
Although Amy has to clean up her act in order to get to the place where she can find true love with Aaron, even more important than eliminating booze, pot and one-night stands from her life, she has to become the writer she was meant to be. She also has to be on good terms with her sister. In short, she needs to be a better human being. Amy implicitly acknowledges Allister as nephew at the same moment she realizes that she likes Aaron “more than anybody,” and the reconciliation with her sister leads to an extended family group hug. The movie’s happy ending, which goes over the top with an epic dance routine and outrageously zany pratfall, simultaneously assures us that love has prevailed and that our heroine will not fade into the background.
Given Trainwreck‘s emphasis on writing as a worthy profession, on equality between love interests, and on respect and empathy as core family values, Jane Austen might have been able to make peace with the sex scenes, penis jokes, short skirts and too-high heels. She would probably have faulted the movie for being too long—it’s over two hours, dragging in the last third, and Austen valued concision—but the author who declared, “Pictures of perfection…make me sick and wicked,” would have found a kindred feminist spirit in Amy Schumer.