Smash Cuts: “Trainwreck” & “The Big Short”

Cutting back to 2007, the prospective career arcs of Judd Apatow and Adam McKay were wildly one sided. While McKay had made both Anchorman and Talledega Nights (both hilarious, the former historically so), Apatow’s career was comparatively on a meteoric rise. Fresh off of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, followed closely by SuperbadWalk Hard, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, America was critically worshipping at the foot of the Apatow altar. Hell, he was ranked as “2007’s #1 smartest person in Hollywood” by some scientifically captured method, I’m sure. The point being, if you had told us that in 2015, Adam McKay would be chasing multiple Oscar nominations and Apatow would be at the peak of a multi-year rut, well, we would have been surprised. With Trainwreck and The Big Short, the two directors’ similar beginnings have rocketed in very different directions. Potential spoilers ahead.

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To call Trainwreck an “Apatow film” is to do an incredible disservice to Amy Schumer and an incredible charity to Apatow. Trainwreck opens with Amy’s father (Colin Quinn) explaining why he and her mother are getting a divorce by conceptualizing the breakup as “only playing with one doll for the rest of your life.” With a healthy childhood distrust of monogamy in tow, Amy’s adult years are brimming with nights of drinking, partying, and sleeping with the entire spectrum of desperate dudes. And this of course all changes when, get this, she meets Aaron (Bill Hader), an awkward yet successful doctor, who she begins to fall for and questions everything she thought to be true! Coupled with some fine work from John Cena (the next Dwayne Johnson) and LeBron James (who are you to deny the return of The King?), the result is hilarious as Schumer nails every joke and even makes her co-star Brie Larson break character a few times to bust out laughing. Its refreshing that Schumer has made the push into the mainstream and broke down some of the idiotic barriers that weren’t crossed because it made men uncomfortable.

Knowing that, and knowing the kind of work that Schumer produces on Inside Amy Schumer, makes the disturbingly misogynistic parts of Trainwreck that much more concerning. At one point, Amy yells at a group of cheerleaders (the New York Knicks cheerleading team) that they will “lose women the right to vote.” At a baby shower, its hard for Amy to hide her contempt for suburban housewives who are portrayed just short of stupid. Its all in good fun and honestly pretty funny. Yet when Trainwreck culminates in Amy symbolically throwing out her alcohol, disowning her beliefs on relationships and family by determining that its inevitable to settle down, and succumbing to dressing up as a cheerleader to win Aaron back, the good humor comes crashing down and is framed in an ending that preaches women should sacrifice who they are to be with a man. That ringing in your ears may be me tooting the political-correctness horn. But it does highlight the kinds of themes that have continued to surface in Apatow productions to this day.

His supposed association with white-washing female characters and/or scripts is well-documented (Neighbors, Bridesmaids, Knocked Up). Maybe Apatow is simply a man who writes from a male perspective, and there’s certainly credit to be doled that there are even significant female roles in his films at all. With both Apatow’s and Schumer’s track record in mind (ahem, Amy’s Emmy Award-winning track record) I find it hard to believe Trainwreck‘s significant flaws lie anywhere except at the feet of Apatow. It is telling to note that Schumer wrote the screenplay in a way that would lure Apatow to direct, and his pull towards a particular brand of humor permeates the set (its also the first film he’s directed that he hasn’t written). Perhaps these themes, this ending, “those” jokes, are a result of that process. And perhaps we weren’t as aware of these problematic portrayals back in 2007, but based on his unfulfilled trend of critical success we would have predicted in 20-aught-7, its interesting to consider if these continuous portrayals have become a permanent blemish on the director. I’ll make an enormous leap and point out that Hollywood’s smartest man has no upcoming directorial projects and will next be producing a Pee Wee Herman TV movie… I’ll just go with Kermit hereTrainwreck did pull in a cool $100 million, so hey, either I can make the equally problematic assumption that viewers are still drawn to Apatow (the male director), or that the success of a woman-lead comedy starring Amy Schumer is an encouraging example that questionable female characters and male-dominated storylines are on a path to becoming critically or financially unviable in comparison? Oh my, its kinda scary being this high on my horse. I’ll dismount this here saddle and end with something more palatable to those who just came to hear about the movie (sorry). Trainwreck is like a poorly wrapped Chipotle burrito: lazy, bloated, but sometimes fun to watch.

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Second City and SNL alum Adam McKay has made the leap from bit comedy to compelling drama in one fell swoop. With The Big Short, the previous comparison between McKay and Apatow is firmly in the realm of irrelevant: its no contest. The Big Short, based on the novel of the same name, explores the mid-2000s housing bubble collapse by following groups of investors who predicted the burst and made “bets” against the market. It is a fiery indictment of real-life villains and the system that coddles them. Let me shake you awake from the money talk now, because McKay deftly disguises this all as a comedy. And with the amount of completely ridiculous and shocking revelations about the industry that props up America, laughter is the best tool that McKay can provide for us to cope with the knowledge.

The Big Short weaves comedy with the disturbing reality, splicing news reels, baseball clips, and music videos to build an ominous sense of fraud in the 2000s, and using cameos from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and Anthony Bourdain to explain the densest parts. The script is razor sharp. At no point does it feel condescending, its all serving the grander purpose of finally making the complexity of a corporate grand larceny against the American public easily digested and understandable; an important and long over due narrative. Christian Bale is superb as the socially-inept investor Michael Burry (imagine the exact opposite of his previous investment character, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho), Steve Carrell mirrors our mistrust and disgust of the whole system, and I could watch Brad Pitt as a germaphobic doomsday-prepper any day of the week. Ryan Gosling, a spray-tanned, blonde-streaked banker, takes a break from betting against his employers (Morgan Stanley.. yikes) to speak directly into the camera to brag and boast. Gosling begins as the film’s “protagonist”, but by then end, when he has a $40 million dollar check in hand, you’re duped. Greed is the villain, like he has been saying all along, but it doesn’t make him any less despicable or our introspective glare any less pointed. The Big Short still takes breaks from the fun to drive point home: watching a family pushed out of their house to live on the streets, seeing the realization that our characters are betting that innocent people will literally die, and witnessing our shining protagonist taking the money and running. You’ll leave the theatre laughing or screaming, but surely smarter.

These are themes (corporate villains) previously explored by McKay in The Other Guys, and its clearly been bugging him for some time. I’m glad he hasn’t let go and is still around to remind us of what feels like an oft-forgotten but ever-present age of corporate fraud. Its a movie that matters, and one we should not soon forget.

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