What Apatow and his fellow travelers actually did hit upon derives more from the sketch comedy of “Saturday Night Live” and decades of nightclub improvisation troupes going back to The Committee.
It’s a willy-nilly shotgun style that aims at a series of target and congratulates itself if it hits a fair number. Misses, even spectacular misses, get shrugged off as long as laughs continue to roll in.
When Apatow is at his best — and in his new film “Trainwreck” he is certainly that — the hits outnumber the misses by a wide margin plus he finds a soft spot where his own voice comes through.
Amid arrested emotional development, immature behavior and potty-mouth digs and retorts sometimes Apatow can claim a moment to convey a truth about our conflicted, confused society.
What makes “Trainwreck” a particular revelation is that another voice sings in harmony with Apatow’s, that belonging to the movie’s debuting screenwriter and star, Amy Schumer.
Her unapologetic, fearless approach to comic sexual embarrassment and social blunders, honed in standup and on television, jibes extremely well with Apatow’s frat-boy humor.
So a series of sketches presents the seeming downward sexual/social spiral of a Good-Time Sally, also named Amy, as she plows her determined path through one-night hookups and the high times of borderline addiction.
What one loses with this shotgun approach is a keen sense of character and narrative structure. For instance, Bill Hader, an “SNL” alum, shows up as Amy’s perspective dream guy, Aaron, if only she will put down the bottle in time to realize it.
But since the sketch-comedy approach demands that he be the butt of as many jokes as her script can bear, an audience has difficulty getting a handle on his character.
Is he Mr. Right? Or just another Mr. Wrong dressed up as a comic foil? The only reason why you might root for him to get Amy is that the script and Amy keep telling you she really likes him. That is, when she’s not making fun of him like she does every other character in the movie.
And so it goes through the entire movie where it’s never clear how she feels about her sister and dad — extremely well played by Brie Larson and Colin Quinn — or what to make of her work as a top reporter at a New York magazine called S’NUFF, which seems like the lowest sort of journalistic pond scum run by a hilariously brittle and soulless editor (a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton).
Yes, this is meant as satire, but if Amy genuinely likes doing hatchet jobs on people and treating every man she dates like a discarded tampon (you see how catchy this kind of humor gets?) then why are you supposed to care about the Reclamation of Amy?
You do though and the characters are, at least this time out, consistently funny even if not consistent characters. The movie is also strewn with a bunch of what-the-hell celeb cameos ranging from basketball superstar LeBron James to actors Daniel Radcliffe and Matthew Broderick, sportscaster Marv Albert and tennis champion Chris Evert.
But again, in this particular instance, not only are these cameos quite funny, LeBron James delivers an actual comic performance as best buddy to Hader’s sports doctor Aaron, hanging out with him to watch “Downton Abbey” and penny-pinching him at lunch.
Who knew the guy could act? That doesn’t even seem fair with his on-court skills.
The movie begins with a sketch that is among the movie’s finest. This is where as a child her dad (Quinn) explains to Amy and her younger sister why he’s breaking up with mom.
“Monogamy isn’t realistic,” he tells them. He illustrates this point with the little girl’s doll. She agrees she wouldn’t want this to be the only doll she plays with and he is of the same mind when confronted with an air hostess doll or cocktail waitress-slut doll.
They continue to be of the same mind two decades later as he resides in a retirement community, which he assures her turns into something out of “Caligula” at night, while she winds up most mornings in an unknown man’s bed after a blackout. The latest bedroom happens to be on Staten Island!
Walking Staten Island’s broken, hilly sidewalks in high heels is no picnic, believe me.
Assigned to do a piece on straight-arrow sports medicine guy Aaron, she naturally throws journalistic ethics out the window by seducing him only to realize, to her horror, that he’s really into her. Even more horrifying she feels the same way.
What to do when monogamy turns realistic? That the crux of the comic matter in “Trainwreck.”
Apatow surrounds his star-writer with beautifully cast performers but the spotlight remains clearly on Amy. She revels in it.
Coming down equally hard on each character’s flaws as well as his or her humanity, Schumer keeps the physical gags, one-liners and comic riffs coming. There’s even a mid-movie montage that pays homage to and at the same time has fun with Woody Allen.
She comes down hardest, of course, on Amy. Proudly self-destructive and slightly (well, more than slightly) contemptuous of her own sister’s (Larson) conventional lifestyle, marriage and brainiac stepson, Amy follows her father’s path even though he too fails to escape her snide remarks.
It’s a winning performance because Amy (the writer-actress that is) gets the nuances of a subtle, hard-to-define intersection between a high degree of self-worth and an equally high degree of bull-headedness.
Her Amy is comfortable in her own skin even if she allows it to burn in the sun. She’ll follow instincts she knows are wrong but they’re HER INSTINCTS!
By the third act Schumer allows for scenes bordering on tearjerkers and gets away with it because her Amy has wormed her way into your heart. She never lets the movie tip into tearjerking, however. Even a eulogy contains salty humor and honest reflection.
Once upon a time Charlie Chaplin rescued a new kind of heartfelt slapstick comedy out of the amoral violence, chases and buffoonery of Mack Sennett two-reelers. It’s hard to tell whether Apatow and Schumer stand a chance of elevating raunch into a kind of comedy that accurately reflects our zeitgeist.
Nevertheless, “Trainwreck” is certainly a good beginning.
Opens: July 17, 2015 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Apatow Productions, Universal Pictures
Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Vanessa Bayer, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Mike Birbiglia, John Cena, Dave Attell, Norman Lloyd
Director: Judd Apatow
Screenwriter: Amy Schumer
Producers: Judd Apatow, Barry Mendel
Executive producer: David Householter
Director of photography: Jody Lee Lipes
Production designer: Kevin Thompson
Music: Jon Brion
Costume designers: Jessica Albertson, Leesa Evans
Editors: William Kerr, Peck Prior, Paul Zucker
R rating, 121 minutes