Judd Apatow has made a career out of directing and producing a peculiar kind of coming of age movie that has only been possible in the post-Baby Boomer world. The standard coming of age film is about a young person stepping over the boundary of childhood into adulthood, usually either through a sexual awakening or learning the tough facts about the real world. Almost all religions and cultures have coming of age ceremonies or traditions, and coming of age movies tend to be about people in the age range of these traditions - say, 12 to 18.
But things got weird with the Baby Boomers, the generation that brought us the Peter Pan Complex. All of a sudden extended youth became all the rage. My generation, Generation X, took it to the next level, bringing toys and cartoons with us into adulthood. If the Boomers stayed 18 forever, we stayed 15. And the Millennials seem to have an almost complete allergy to growing up, possibly caused in part by the Great Recession, which saw grown adults unable to leave home after college graduation.
The point of this sociological generalization is simply this - we have added a new phase to our life cycles, one that goes between adolescence (itself a fairly new phase in human society) and adulthood. And Judd Apatow has spent the last decade examining that line between being a young adult and a real adult, with Trainwreck as the latest vehicle for it.
In Trainwreck star and writer Amy Schumer plays Amy, a woman who works at a men’s magazine, who drinks and parties all the time and who sleeps around with abandon, racking up an impressive number of one night stands. Amy rarely does the walk of shame because her policy is to never sleep over, but even when she breaks that rule - as she does in the opening of the movie, being trapped on Staten Island* - she owns it and crowns herself the king of the world, Leonardo DiCaprio style.
Amy isn’t grown up. Her job has her writing garbage fluff pieces but never revealing her true self, and while she has a boyfriend she simply is unwilling to commit. She’s making money, she’s getting laid, she’s having fun. And then she meets a guy and her whole world is thrown into chaos - she actually likes this guy, she wants to be with this guy and she wants to make it work. At the same time she sees the lame suburban existence of her sister and dreads falling into that hole.
This is the classic Apatovian coming of age thing - Amy, like Seth Rogen in Knocked Up or Steve Carell in The 40 Year Old Virgin or Adam Sandler in Funny People, is physically and legally an adult, but she’s not fully acting like one. As adults all of these characters have been able to make their own choices, but it’s only when they become real adults that they can make good choices.
Over at IndieWire Peter Knegt frets about this, calling Trainwreck ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘conservative.’
"Um, I feel like Judd Apatow just seriously slut-shamed us and brought Amy Schumer along for the ride," my friend said as we walked out of the theater, furious. "What the fuck was that movie trying to say!?" My thoughts pretty much exactly.
"Trainwreck" is an astonishingly judgemental movie, and not in the fun way you'd think it would be. It seems to throw the very people Schumer has been vouching for all these years under the bus with an essential moral that excess behavior will only lead to unhappiness and that we best assimilate into societal norms even if it doesn't feel natural. Why would Amy Schumer -- our Amy Schumer -- want to express such a notion?
Well, possibly because Amy Schumer is 34 years old. Let’s set aside one of the most troubling and condescending aspects of Knegt’s piece, namely that Judd Apatow steam-rolled over Schumer and made his own movie (“Basically, "Trainwreck" feels like two different movies -- one Schumer's and one director and co-writer Judd Apatow's -- competing against one another.”**) and just focus on this one question: why would Amy Schumer want to throw herself under the bus?
The thing is that she doesn’t. The movie doesn’t present Amy’s life as bad, it presents Amy’s life as changing. It presents the Amy character as a woman in her mid-30s who finds that the party cannot continue in the way it once did.
This is a fairly universal discovery. I spent my 20s drinking and doing drugs and engaging in really cheap, tawdry sex… and it was awesome. I loved my 20s. I had the best goddamned time. That extended well into my 30s, and when I first moved out to Los Angeles I was having the best experiences possible. What happened to me is sort of similar to what happens to Amy in the film - I wasn’t looking to settle down or get sort of boring, but I met somebody and instead of it being a one night stand or a two week thing it turned into a multi-year relationship. I didn’t plan that, and I didn’t think I was ready for that, but it happened. I met somebody and it happened.
At almost the exact same time I began to realize that my body couldn’t do the things I had been doing before, at least not to the same extremes. If I drank a lot one night I would be useless the next day, a totally new phenomenon to me. In my 20s and early 30s I would drink until dawn, pass out on the couch at work and be up and doing my job by 9. I didn’t want to stop doing that, but my body soon made it clear I had to stop doing that, or at least stop doing that as often.
That relationship didn’t last, but it was the longest relationship of my life. And I stepped out the other side of it expecting to just get back to my previous ways, but now I was 40 and it just didn’t work the way it had. The things that had felt so awesome at 28 - the drunken hook-ups and the pissing in alleys and the fights and the stupidity - filled me with horror the next morning. I found that I awoke after a long night out dreading discovering what I had done, a very different feeling from the old days, when I would laugh maniacally as I pieced together the previous night’s mayhem.
I had grown up. I didn’t want to, and I didn’t intend to, but it just happened. I walked out of that post-adolescent young adulthood and became something much closer to a real adult. Believe me, nobody is more disappointed than I am, but it happened. And it all started happening right around 34, which is how old Amy Schumer is.
I don’t think that Trainwreck decries the lifestyle of Amy’s 20s and early 30s any more than I decry my own similar lifestyle. It was great! But it also ended. Trainwreck is the story of a woman (and how refreshing that it’s a woman who is allowed to get to her mid-30s without having quite grown up) who is trying to navigate that passage. Some - including Knegt - have read the ending of the movie as Amy throwing in with her sister’s despised lifestyle, but I don’t see that onscreen. I don’t think the movie brings us to any point where we can really be sure what the next phase of Amy’s life is going to be. We just know that she has made a choice to actually try, something that she has never done before. We see this as she dances with the Knicks cheerleaders (a wonderful bit of physical comedy, by the way) but also in the way that she rewrites her story about Bill Hader’s doctor to be more personal, to expose herself more. As a writer Amy has been hiding behind the voice of S’Nuff Magazine, but now she is presenting herself as she is.
Will she end up with kids and in the suburbs? I don’t know. I don’t know that she ends up with Hader’s character forever. I didn’t stay with the woman who brought me into adulthood. We don’t see a marriage, we don’t see a sonogram, we don’t see a house in the ‘burbs - we just see a woman finally ready to make an effort.
The one time the movie criticizes Amy’s lifestyle is when she is backsliding; after having spent time in a relationship she sabotages it and ends up in bed with the intern from work… who turns out to be 16 years old. This is a great joke but also an illustration of the film’s central coming of age thesis - she’s too old for this now. Literally.
Is that inherently conservative? I guess to 25 year old me it would have seemed so, but today it just seems like the nature of human growth. Every phase of my life has seen me looking at people in the next phase and thinking how lame it was that they went there… and then I went there. That’s one of the reasons I’m glad I got into the film criticism racket when I was almost 30, because I don’t think as a 25 year old I could have gotten Trainwreck. I would have liked Amy Schumer and her comedy, but I think Trainwreck would have felt alien to me. It would have felt like a betrayal. But it’s really just an artist reflecting her own continued (and endless) growth as a human being.
* perhaps the greatest humiliation a New Yorker can suffer
** while decrying the impact that Apatow had on this, and naming Bridesmaids as another Apatow-produced 'conservative' comedy, Knegt neglects to mention Girls, a show that offers no such tidiness.