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Thinking pop culture

‘Trainwreck’ and Popping the Cultural Bubble

As someone who spends a good chunk of time happily consuming, and writing about pop culture, there are occasions – rare, but jarring – when something becomes popular, becomes a juggernaut, and I’m left scratching my head.

Normally, even if I’m not laughing or convulsing in rapture, I can usually work out why other people are. Not quite a vicarious enjoyment - let’s not go that far - but at least an academic understanding.

I sat through the first two seasons of Game of Thrones, for example, to uncover how everyone had become so obsessed with a live-action Dungeons and Dragons game. In the end, I think I got it. It taps into our appetite for the epic. For big budgets, big casts, big storylines. For rear-entry sex and bouncing-breasts. For beards! I ‘got’ it, even if the appeal remains lost on me.


As with Game of Thrones, I gave Girls a two-season go, open to the idea that just maybe my predictions of agony were wrong. And with every episode I reached the same epiphany I had everytime I watched Sex and the City. Uncanny valley.

I’ve written a little about the idea before; uncanny valley describes our discomfort with, commonly, robots who look a little too like us but clearly are not us. For me, shows like Girls and Sex and the City offer a life that looks kinda like ours - there are people doing things, saying things, going places, yadda yadda - but they’re just not quite enough like us to avoid being creepy.

After too many episodes of Girls I came to the conclusion that female-driven is probably, sadly, still unique enough to strike a chord. Equally, that Lena Dunham offers up a physical softness that’s closer to reality than Hollywood’s standard female fantasy presumably remains topical.

Which brings me to Amy Schumer. I didn’t want to see Trainwreck because every single snippet I’ve seen of her comedy is like fingernails on a blackboard, or, for me, an emery board. And yet, because she’s a woman, because she’s a feminist, because she’s speaking the (often) unspeakable, I felt I should at least give her one more go.

Until December, I’m living in a very small town in Connecticut. Aside from the possibility of attending a puppeteers powwow later this month, a multiplex is my sole local outlet of culture. While theoretically everything showing there is already downloadable, sometimes one needs to fabricate attraction to pretzelly mall air.

Watching Trainwreck, I tried to answer the question that’s long been bugging me about the gap Schumer has apparently plugged in our cultural imaginary. About how people have come to gush about her so quickly. Two long hours later and I don’t have a good answer. She’s the female figure in what is, in all the very worst ways, yet another Judd Apatow film. With the exception of Funny People, they’re all much the same, this one just has Schumer up to the shenanigans that normally centre around Adam Sandler/Paul Rudd/Seth Rogen.

And just as I had trouble seeing the clip for Taylor Twift’s Bad Blood as some kind of grand feminist statement – slotting women, uncritically, into roles that have traditionally been occupied by men does not instantly produce some kind of magical feminist orgasm – I’m not convinced Trainwreck is doing anything particularly innovative.

In fact, by the end of the film it all felt quite binge-and-purge conservative.

With plenty of energies conserved from not laughing and with no grand insight into what everyone else is so amused by, instead, I devoted my energies into thinking up some nice things to say about this two-hour time suck.

One. Lebron James. Like the protagonist, I equally have no interest in sport. In fact, my entire knowledge of the guy centers on his live 2010 television “event” where he announced that he was changing teams; something I found both hysterical and egregiously indulgent.

Lebron, in fact, is the most interesting thing about Trainwreck; the basketballer puts a male twist on the screen’s standard sassy, straight-talkin’ black female friend. (Although, now that I think of it, he’s just reprised Dave Chappelle’s role from You’ve Got Mail. Albeit with more charisma).

Two. The meta-narrative. There’s a brief scene when Amy and her meathead fuck-buddy see a film called The Dogwalker starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei. While the whole scene is cringe-worthy it did recall the capacity for films-inside-films to be hilarious. A favourite scene from the first season of Upper Middle Bogan for example, had Margaret (Robyn Nevin) going to see a French film. A brilliant mockery ensued of the ugly-old-guy/comely-ingénue films that are always showing in arthouse cinemas. Equally, it was a reminder of the surprisingly funny Tropic Thunder’s Just Jack.

Three. Bill Hader. While he’s just a rom-com chump in Trainwreck, I got a happy reminder of last year’s Skeleton Twins which was one of the year’s favourites. Ditto Ezra Miller. He’s an insipid abomination in Trainwreck but The Perks of Being a Wallflower and We Need to Talk About Kevin are actually pretty great.

Alas, with all the gay jokes, Tilda Swinton in the annoying-British-woman role that usually goes to Lucy Punch, and one too many Kanye references, I’m still having difficulty seeing the Emperor’s oh so glorious robes here.

Trainwreck opens in Australia on Thursday August 6.

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