Editor’s Note: Trainwreck, released in theaters July 17, is a comedy written by and starring Amy Schumer, whose TV series Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central has been a huge hit. The character she portrays in Trainwreck is also named Amy.
I saw Trainwreck this weekend. It was hilarious. Seriously, I couldn’t stop laughing. Except when Amy binge drinks to the point of blackouts, and other signs of her alcoholism drew peals of laughter from the rest of the audience. And then there’s the fact that the character’s pot smoking is totally normalized: During the course of the movie, Amy frequently ducks out of uncomfortable situations to smoke a joint. The other characters treat this as little more than a sign of disrespect—the problem is that Amy walked out on them, not that she smokes pot to deal with emotional discomfort.
Oddly, the movie reminded me of Nurse Jackie, which featured a very different perspective on drug use and ended a seven-season run last month. The successful Showtime series chronicled the life—and addiction—of Jackie Peyton, a gifted nurse who becomes addicted to all sorts of pills, in part to deal with a back injury, and largely to deal with the stress of daily life in the ER. Critics, viewers, addiction professionals, and people who’ve struggled with their own substance misuse have hailed the show for its realistic portrayal of addiction: the way it catches people in its grip without their realizing it, the heartbreaking consequences that often follow, and the ongoing struggle to break free.
What I always liked about Nurse Jackie is that it convinces people at the gut level, in a way that study results don’t, that addiction isn’t a conscious choice or moral failing, but rather a chronic disease that needs constant care. Jackie’s struggle afforded viewers a whole new, more nuanced, and deeper understanding of addiction.
Trainwreck wasn’t like that. I guess Amy’s penchant for booze and pot is supposed to be edgy, much like the sketches of sexual exploits, challenges to gender stereotypes, and irreverent speech that have catapulted the real Amy to fame.
With apologies to Schumer, it didn’t seem edgy to me. In fact, it felt dated, and a lot like 1981 in particular. That’s the year Warner Brothers released Arthur, the iconic film featuring a cuddly Dudley Moore as a wealthy, lovable drunk and Liza Minnelli as the lowbrow love of his life. It was a box office hit.
A lot happened between then and 1988, when Arthur 2: On the Rocks debuted. By that time, Mothers Against Drunk Driving was felt as a presence in every school, Nancy Reagan told us to “just say no,” and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched its “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign. And who could forget Tom Hanks’ Uncle Ned downing a bottle of vanilla extract and then hitting poor Alex in Family Ties? Suddenly, being unable to control one’s drinking didn’t seem at all funny; it seemed really sad. As the Washington Post pointed out in its blistering review, “If Arthur 2 has any significance, it’s to herald—unwittingly—the death of the Happy Drunk in the movies.” The film was a box office flop.
But the pendulum is swinging back, and it’s somehow once again funny to have a problem with alcohol—and we can laugh about it because, according to Trainwreck, problem drinking (and smoking) is not that serious.
I think the real edgy, out-of-the-box portrayal was Nurse Jackie. It made us reconsider addiction and the people who suffer from it. Trainwreck, on the other hand, only reminds us that some things—like portraying drunkenness as funny—are in the box for good reason.