Trainwreck's problem? Its tactlessness doesn't raise laughs

Mistress America and Trainwreck both look at the lives of young women - but neither quite pull it off.

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Mistress America (15)
dir: Noah Baumbach
 

Trainwreck (15)
dir: Judd Apatow

Successors to Woody Allen are appointed all too frequently. Yet no one has been that exercised about the job of heralding a new Diane Keaton, the inspiration for and star of Annie Hall. Her combination of skittishness, charm and control enhanced Allen’s movies in the 1970s (she also enjoyed a glorious encore in his Manhattan Murder Mystery in 1993). This, together with a sleepy and fuzzy demeanour that could snap unexpectedly into focus, has its closest current counterpart in the actor Greta Gerwig. In Gerwig’s three collaborations with the director Noah Baumbach – Greenberg, Frances Ha and now Mistress America (the last two of which she co-wrote) – she has created characters who remain sharply drawn even when outwardly weak or wishy-washy. We know who they are, even if they themselves do not.

Brooke, the wannabe restaurateur and socialite she plays in Mistress America, behaves like an It girl. In truth, she is more of an If girl: nothing she’s done has ever quite come off. She makes a grand entrance walking down a flight of stairs, her pizzazz undermined only slightly when she signals too soon at the person she has come to meet. It’s a question as old as time: what do you do to fill those long seconds following a premature wave? Brooke’s solution (look mildly aggrieved but plough on anyway) is as dotty as the “la-di-da” with which Annie Hall plugged gaps in the conversation.

In Greenberg and Frances Ha, Gerwig played women who hadn’t found themselves. Brooke is in the same wobbly boat, only she thinks she’s on dry land. Gazing back from the grand old age of 30, she dishes out wisdom to her protégée, stooge and stepsister-to-be, a college freshman she nicknames “Baby”, Tracy (Lola Kirke). Tracy, a budding writer, worships Brooke but is also in the business of betraying her. A short story she is writing portrays her new mentor in an unflattering light. It’s the clunky version here of Chekhov’s gun, glimpsed in the first act and primed to go off in the third.

So long as Mistress America mimics the spontaneity of Brooke’s own life, it buzzes with a rampant energy. Rushing us from one lunch date, tutorial or party to the next, the film’s editor, Jennifer Lame, tears ravenously at the story, so that it is a while before we realise that she and Baumbach are creating frenzy out of lives that amount to comparatively little.

The film changes tone abruptly at the midway point, confining the ensemble cast to an upstate gathering where Brooke tries to raise funds for her restaurant. Everyone is reduced to tics, zingers and eccentricities as the mechanics of farce and screwball are imposed on the character-based comedy of the early scenes. Baumbach veered towards this kind of clutter with his last film, While We’re Young, in which a middle-aged couple are at first rejuvenated, then hoodwinked, by a pair of youthful hipsters. Mistress America has a similar message to impart (the kids will get you in the end) and an equally inelegant way of doing so.

There’s still half a great movie here. Gerwig, a slalom skier among comic actors, is capable of conveying multiple contradictory meanings at once – such as when Brooke deplores the modern appetite for recording every moment and posting it online, in the same instant posing flagrantly for just such a photograph. Her habit of misconstruing the merest conversational input from Tracy as impertinent is also splendidly disorientating and original. Having expressed her distaste, she then flips just as quickly back to cheerfulness, leaving her companion to wonder if she imagined the whole thing. It is to the movie’s credit that Brooke is finally neither monster nor marvel, but somewhere in between.

Trainwreck, created by the comedy powerhouse of Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer, doesn’t risk any such ambiguities. From the minute we see a montage of the one-night stands notched up by Amy, a journalist (played by Schumer, who wrote the screenplay), it is clear she is ripe for redemption. This comes in the form of a nerdy sports doctor (Bill Hader) she is commissioned to interview. The film exploits the risqué escapades of Amy’s sex life for humour, then forces her to change her ways for the sake of the romcom it aspires to be. Only the abundant chemistry between Schumer and Hader sweetens that rather bitter pill.

It’s hard to get enough of the couple, or of Tilda Swinton as a casually catty magazine editor whose flame-haired, flame-faced look evokes mid-1970s Bowie. Where Trainwreck comes unstuck is in its struggle to raise laughs from tactless material. Closeted men and racial insensitivity are subjects the film-makers clearly find uproarious. If only they could convince the audience.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais