Why Trainwreck's success poses a problem for Amy Schumer

The unexpectedly strong US debut for the comedian’s first major movie role is a victory for female-led comedy, but will it pigeonhole its breakout star?

The assured publicity machine behind ribald comic Amy Schumer’s self-penned romantic comedy Trainwreck helped to turn a TV breakout into a full-on movie star over the weekend with a $30.2m US opening, exceeding the expectations of analysts.

While her show Inside Amy Schumer might have gone viral more times than Keyboard Cat, it wasn’t solid proof of the comedian’s appeal in the non-digital world. But the star tirelessly promoted the film and herself, whether it was presenting the MTV movie awards, throwing herself in front of Kim Kardashian or pissing George Lucas off, ensuring a wider awareness of her once niche brand. It was a strategy that meant her first lead role in Trainwreck became director Judd Apatow’s second biggest opener, as well as beating other female-led hits such as Bridesmaids and Spy. But while this is a great result for the undeniably talented Schumer and female comedy in general, it does prove potentially problematic for its star.

In the film, Schumer plays an extension of herself, with a similar family dynamic and even possessing the same first name. The film follows “Amy” as a hard-drinking men’s magazine journalist whose fear of commitment is challenged when she falls in love for the first time. While she admitted that she doesn’t have “as much sex as her or drink as much”, she still refers to the script as “pretty autobiographical”.

Schumer’s brand of humour has always been closely linked to her own sense of self, poking fun at perception, internal and external, with stand up and sketches that see her referencing her own insecurities and the difficulties of succeeding in a vapid, image-obsessed industry. But the problem she now faces is that the comic who forever jokes about never making it is now the actress who has pretty much made it. She’s on the cover of everything from Glamour to GQ and not by playing the bitchy best friend or dumpy meerkat but the three-dimensional leading lady. It’s the same problem that faces rappers who rhyme about the struggle to get paid who then get paid more than anyone else listening to their record.

That’s not to say that Schumer’s hit then secures her a spot on the A-list. Firstly, while Trainwreck is already a hit in the US (in the next couple of days it will have made back more than its $35m budget), international success will prove slightly tougher. Trainwreck is a defiantly American film, packed with sports references and pop culture jokes that will fail to translate overseas, even if its overarching themes of commitment phobia and dysfunctional dating will. Her show is also less widely known outside of the US and in an industry which puts more and more pressure on a film’s global haul, she’ll have to work hard to ensure her name is known around the world.

But what might prove the biggest longterm pitfall for Schumer is the inextricable link between her comic persona and her real self. Much of her success as a comic relies on her ability to be open and unembarrassed about her life. Nothing is off topic for Schumer and it’s this candidness that makes her so disarming. But it also makes her vulnerable. We know the real Amy so well, or at least we think we do, and we now know the similarish Trainwreck Amy but can we disassociate any form of Amy from her future roles?

It’s a problem that faces anyone whose comedy intersects with their own personality, especially when they’re known for writing their own jokes. Can we ever imagine Tina Fey as anyone but Liz Lemon? Or Jerry Seinfeld as anyone but Seinfeld? Schumer’s ascent to movie stardom will now bring her a variety of roles from writers attempting to replicate her voice and offering a watered down version of what she does best. Take a look at Fey’s big-screen career which has been problematic because none of the scripts she’s picked have ever matched her talent as a writer (the trailer for Sisters suggests another disappointment after Admission and This Is Where I Leave You).

So where next for Schumer? She currently has two projects on her slate and after Trainwreck’s big opening, both will now surely be deemed a high priority. Firstly, there’s comedy Plus One, which will headline Jessica Chastain as a woman out of a long-term relationship using her crude friend Schumer to help her get back on the scene. Secondly, there’s an action comedy, to be produced by Paul Feig, which will see Schumer, who will co-write the script, on a holiday gone wrong with her mother.

Allowing Schumer to write her own material, progress as a screenwriter and control her career is, in theory, the more exciting eventuality, especially given her bold take on gender expectations. If she starts to compromise on what roles she takes then it will undermine her cutting dissection of how the industry treats women. No one wants to see Schumer go from bride to bridesmaid, offering trailer-ready one-liners while the spotlight is hogged by someone else. TV Amy would never approve.


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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