Trainwreck (the movie)

Life, literature and cinema form the three layers of my grapplings with Trainwreck: My Life as an Idoit. I’ve become a sort of Facebook pen pal with author/comedian Jeff Nichols since he first sent me a copy of his book a few weeks back. Since then I’ve read the book a couple of times, and recently saw the movie twice. It’s the latter product that is the subject of this critique.

Written and directed by feature-freshman Tod Harrison Williams, the film does a terrific job of fashioning a focused story out of the entertaining if appropriately sprawling and rambling original. Whereas the book encompasses Nichols’ entire life from childhood on, Williams has made a romantic comedy of it, with occasional flashbacks to past escapades, rather ingeniously using AA sessions and stand-up comedy sets as the platform for the reminiscences.

The film is tight, has a great arc, and does a lot with a little. The pros and cons of an indie budget are on display here. For example, it only hit me until later that Williams had accomplished the capsizing of an expensive sport-fishing boat with only a steering wheel, a beer can and the open water in the frame. A burning mansion is never shown, but the smoldering ruins is. The one con I noticed was one night-time exterior far too brightly lit. One imagines a ticking clock, a tight shooting schedule, and a short-term permit enforcing the compromise.

The cast is top-notch, including some familiar faces such as Jonathan Ames (uncredited?) in a bit role as an AA counselor; Jeff Garlin as Nichols’ AA buddy and SRO roommate; and the extremely attractive indie queen Gretchen Mol, (veteran of several Woody Allen films and the title character in The Notorious Betty Paige) as the love interest.

It is the latter character who leads the way to Trainwreck’s principle flaw. As the film is constructed, it is unaccountable that the blonde, rich and gorgeous Mol would ever fall for the unemployed ne’er-do-well Nichols as played by Seann William Scott. Scott actually gives a very good performance; it’s just the wrong one. The partially fictionalized Nichols (like the real one) is a character who gets by on charm and humor (except among commercial fishermen). Nichols is correct in his published assessment that the proper type would have been John Belushi or Chris Farley, but any number of top contemporary comedians would have done as well. Steve Carell, Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, either of the Wilson brothers: all of these guys would have known what to do. Undoubtedly the budget dictated the proscription of such big ticket talent, but it’s equally certain the producers might have found someone appropriate in the right price range. Scott’s performance as Stiffler in American Pie is the right pedigree, but unfortunately, for whatever reason, he plays the main character in Trainwreck as a serious, earnest young sad-sack, the guy who just wants “to do right”. Consequently, countless scenes in the film that should be played as sad and mortifying but hilarious, have skipped the hilarious. Why his parents continue to support him well into his thirties, or why the various characters keep telling him he should do stand-up, is therefore a mystery.

I suspect the decision to slant the story this way is a gesture of political correctness. Maybe the idea of laughing at a learning disabled man with attention deficit disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, and several other conditions on top of a substance abuse problem seemed distasteful to the film-makers. But pity for such an anti-hero comes off as patronizing and a little 2-dimensional unless the character’s strengths are also on display.

All, that aside, I heartily recommend this as a date film, especially if you’re an unemployed, drunk, thirtysomething man trying to convince Miss January that you’re more redeemable than the sum total of your empties. Excuse me, I think my mother’s calling.

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