Schumer is a classic example of a comedy writer with lots of natural talent, matched with tremendous experience in stand up and sketch comedy. But when you jump up to the screenplay you move into the longer story forms. That’s where knowing your genres is the key to being both popular and great. Schumer does not yet have that level of craft.
In my genre classes, I say that the most important strategy for success, both commercially and critically, is to transcend the genre you’re working in. That requires taking the 8-15 story beats unique to your form and twisting them in a way we’ve never seen. In Trainwreck, Schumer transcends the Romantic Comedy form in a number of original and entertaining ways.
Unfortunately there’s no romance in her Romantic Comedy, no love in this love story. Before you can transcend the form, you have to execute the form in the first place.
The easy out is to say there just isn’t any chemistry between the two leads, Amy (Amy Schumer) and Aaron (Bill Hader). But chemistry first has to be written in the script. And that takes special techniques.
Let’s look first at how Trainwreck transcends the Romantic Comedy. First, and this is a big deal, the woman drives the story. This is not going to be the typical Rom-Com about the guy who is attracted to a pretty girl, uses some deception to sleep with her only to fall in love in the process. Second, Amy’s character takes the traditional male role, wanting to sleep with as many guys as she can with no commitment. The men play the woman’s role in wanting a relationship with her, as emotional human beings, not just as her temporary sex toy. Third, Trainwreck tries to be much more real about relationships today, by pushing sex, especially from a woman’s point of view, way ahead of love.
All that is very refreshing, and worth a lot of humor you probably haven’t seen before. But these techniques, which are designed to show that this film is breaking the limits of the extremely tired Romantic Comedy form, also have a high cost. Trainwreck never gets started as a love story.
One reason for that has to do with basic story structure. The first two of seven major structure steps found in any good story are Weakness-Need and Desire. As you can see right from the title, Trainwreck opens with lots of Weakness-Need. Amy has a big problem with alcohol, has lots of sex with strangers and cannot accept even a touch of human emotion from a man. She has a nightmare boss and a nightmare father, who is mean and has an even bigger problem with alcohol.
What Amy and this movie don’t have is Desire. In a Romantic Comedy, her main desire should be the other person, in this case Aaron. But I never saw it. Yes, Aaron is a humanitarian doctor who would appeal to anyone. Amy likes to hang out with him, though I don’t know why. But wanting him, sexually and emotionally, is just not there.
Besides bleeding this story of all passion, the lack of a specific Desire line means the movie has no spine. We generally go from Amy meeting Aaron to getting involved and falling in love. But neither character is driving us in that direction. We just kind of edge over there.
The audience’s investment in a Romantic Comedy is the love between the two people. In Trainwreck, there is no romantic love going either way. I can guess why Amy likes Aaron. But how an intelligent, normal guy like Aaron could fall in love with Amy (the character) is beyond me. He is repelled by her alcoholism, her unsafe sexuality and her complete lack of emotion.
You would think that at least he would be strongly attracted to her sense of humor. But not really. They don’t banter. They don’t laugh together. Her jokes are mostly for the benefit of the audience.
So what’s the technical reason the love story never gets started? Why is there no Desire line here? That’s where genre technique comes into play. Love story has the strongest desire line of any genre. There has to be tons of desire in a love story. Desire is so important that many of the special beats in Love Story have to do with breaking the desire into small but intense moments. Two of these are First Gaze – when the characters first see each other – and Meet Cute – when they actually meet, but in a serendipitous way (for all the Romantic Comedy beats and how to write them, take a look at the Comedy Class and the Love Story Class).
Someone intent on transcending this tired genre might purposely skip these early beats. They’ve been done so many times before. But there’s a reason those two beats are always present at the beginning of a good Romantic Comedy. They are the moments that turn a “like” story into a love story. They’re the spark that catches fire, and then the fire can build. Without that spark up front, we’re dead.
Those beats are completely missing here. Maybe Schumer felt that a more realistic Romantic Comedy like Trainwreck couldn’t get away with such contrived and predictable moments. But that means she doesn’t set up the romance spark between the lovers. In a Romantic Comedy, that’s a big loss.
There are plenty of good things in Trainwreck, including a hilarious opening bit and a good finale. My guess is that Schumer really polished her screenplay skills here. It’s not easy to jump from sketch to screen story. She took on the tough Romantic Comedy form and gave it a good spin. I would also guess that next time she will be much more conscious of the power of the beats that create the form she’s writing.
If she can match her ability to spin and riff with an ability to tell a good story, Amy Schumer will be very dangerous.