Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trainwreck (2015) vs. Unforgiven (1992)

One of the things that's bothered me about Judd Apatow's comedies is how bitter they seem. I've felt this way about everything he's done since "The 40-Year-Old Virgin". None of the movies ends up being funny or enjoyable. But why, what makes them so bitter-seeming? And what is Apatow trying to achieve?

I finally put it all together it in this scene where Amy (the prota-gon-ist, I guess) is watching cheerleaders with her doctor boyfriend. He explains that they work hard, and he treats them for injuries. Her response was this:

The snarky commentary throughout the movie -- and really, all of Judd Apatow's movies -- makes comedy at the expense of characters who are not deserving. Compare this to classic comedies such as Real Genius or Ghostbusters. The person being made fun of in those movies (and actually yes, it's the same actor -- William Atherton), had established themselves as a real jerk! So it's completely enjoyable when one of our proto-...prota-gon-ists makes fun of him.

"Well... you could believe Mr. Pecker."

So let's dig deeper. What is Apatow trying to achieve?

The Anti-Hero

You, Flock-Of-Seagulls. Remember Jules?

Jules is a bad man. He kills people and works for a crime boss. And yet we root for him in the movie. Why? He is the Good.. at least within the confines of the film. And Pulp Fiction defines the boundaries of Good and Bad within the film very well. Bad seems to take the form of unsophistication in Pulp Fiction. Lesser thieves. Jules is established as a protagonist when he and Vincent are sent by the boss to collect from unsophisticated thieves. And it's just their job, the other guys are lazily eating Big Kahuna Burger at 8am, having stolen from Marsellus Wallace.

Given Quentin Tarantino's love of dialogue, Jules even clarifies his position in the movie when he meets up with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in the coffee shop.

"See, now I'm thinking: maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here... he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. And I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd"
Pumpkin and Honey Bunny had already established themselves as low-life stick-up artists at the beginning of the movie. Jules is the higher authority. Well-dressed, well-spoken and well-employed (by a crime boss -- the tyranny of evil men). He is trying to reform the lesser criminals. Importantly, by the time he says this to Pumpkin, Jules has already explained that because of the miracle at the apartment (the bullets did not touch him and Vincent), he wants to quit the business and roam the earth like Caine from Kung Fu. And so we root for him.

Anti-heroes as powerful as Jules make people uneasy by design. My dad, for example, hated Pulp Fiction because "it made you root for the bad guys." So let's talk about a really bad guy and why we root for him.

William Munny

William Munny has killed dozens or hundreds in the West, including women and children. Throughout the movie, he explains how he's now sober, and he did all that when he was drunk and barely remembers it.

But really none of that matters. Once Ned is put out in front of the saloon with a sign on him, Munny grabs the booze and reverts to exactly the same way he always was. Here, have a drink, Will:

So basically he's not the reformed person we heard about all movie, he's right back to the cold blooded killer.

Some important things still allow the audience to root for him even when this happens.

#1) Ned was innocent (at least relatively so, within the context of the movie)

Although Ned was in on the plot to kill the cowboys, he couldn't pull the trigger on his Spencer when it came time to do so. Even though Ned was originally part of it, he was trying to leave because he didn't want to be a part of it. So revenge makes some sense here.

#2) Little Bill

Little Bill is presented as Bad in the movie pretty clearly. Everyone hates Bill. He beats Ned to death with a whip. Bill reinforces that Munny is actually Good, within this movie at least.

But interestingly, his evilness is tempered by another character. The Duck of Death:

In his original review of Unforgiven -- in which he gave the movie 2.5 stars (!) -- Roger Ebert commented that English Bob was a superfluous character because he never met Munny in the movie.

English Bob actually has an important role in the movie which is to make Little Bill not seem as bad. The Duck of Death is not only a braggart but someone who murders for minor reasons, as discussed in the jail with the writer.

This, and Bill's wanting to build a house and settle in Big Whiskey give us just a little bit of sadness when Munny gets revenge on Bill.


So now we've talked about some successful anti-heroes in the history of film (if not the two most successful), let's bring this blog post home and talk about why Trainwreck fails to make Amy a good anti-hero.

Many of the themes parallel with Unforgiven, for example:
  • Munny was a drunk killer.
  • Amy is a drunk killer.
  • The death of Munny's wife changed him (before the movie), and Ned's death reverted him (during the movie)
  • The death of Amy's father ... really seemed to have no direct effect on her.
But where Trainwreck fails is very simple. In Unforgiven, Munny is quickly established as Good compared to the cowboys, and then that image is furthered against Little Bill. We have to wait 117 minutes into Trainwreck to see Amy become a decent person relative to anyone else in the film. And it's just not enjoyable as a result. There's nothing, and no one, to root for. Most of the movie, I was hoping that Bill Hader's character would just ditch her. 

Judd Apatow's made a lot more money than I have making movies, so maybe I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. But it would be interesting if he could ever make a movie where the main characters are someone to root for. Start by putting an antagonist in the movie that's both relevant to the plot and worse than the main character. Trainwreck fails at all of this.

JSS Rating: Bad/Bad. It's supposed to be a bad movie and guess what... it is!