I’ve seen two decent comedy films this summer. Melissa McCarthy’s Spy and Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck were both fun, but the movie about a magazine editor with a substance-abuse problem was much better than the one about the assistant spy who’s forced to go out into the field. Why is that?
It’s not just that Trainwreck had bigger laughs—it also stuck in my mind more vividly, after watching it. Spy left a pretty vague impression, that had faded a lot after just a few hours. I can’t help feeling like a big part of the reason is that Spy is a “genre” comedy, which needed to service its spy premise and its fish-out-of-water gimmick. Of course, Trainwreck belongs loosely to a few genres as well, including rom-com and addiction-recovery narrative. But it’s less married to a single genre, or dependent on subverting or following the usual tropes.
The comparison between Trainwreck and Spy keeps coming back to mind, because they’re both transgressive comedy films about women—in which the protagonists behave in ways that are designed to make the audience a little uncomfortable. They deliberately push the boundaries of what we’re willing to see women do in 2015.
A lot of the “fish out of water” humor in Spy is about the fact that Melissa McCarthy doesn’t look like your mental image of a female spy (who’s embodied more by Morena Baccarin) and she doesn’t know how to act in the kinds of sophisticated casinos and fancy parlors where spies spend all their time. And meanwhile, Trainwreck gets a lot of mileage out of Schumer’s on-screen substance abuse and casual sex. These are both comedies about problematic women who prove that they have a lot to offer, in spite of a world that questions and devalues them.
What’s interesting is that neither movie features a “realistic” world for its characters to blunder their way through. Spy takes place in the same kind of cartoony spy world as the James Bond and Mission Impossible films, only with added weirdness like a bat infestation in the spy HQ. But the world of Trainwreck isn’t any more real—Schumer’s magazine-writing career always feels like an afterthought, and nobody ever questions that she’s dating the subject of her article. Plus she doesn’t get arrested for her behavior towards the end, and the way sports medicine works in that world is sort of baffling as well.
And yet, I felt weirdly sort of invested in the world of Trainwreck in a way that I didn’t in the world of Spy—and I think it’s because the world of Spy is so much like off-the-rack wallpaper. Everything in the world of Spy (with the exception of Jason Statham’s bonkers character) feels borrowed wholesale from elsewhere, even as the movie rushes through a series of plot twists that feel half-assed but also consume way too much of the movie’s focus.
It’s like, if something is classified as a genre comedy, we have to make it a spoof—and a spoof can’t be clever or character-driven, it can only plod through all of the rote elements of whatever it’s spoofing. There’s a moment halfway through Spy where McCarthy stops being a meek doormat and starts being sassy and taking control of her situation—and it feels refreshing, because we’re sick of her being a doormat, and also natural, because she’s acting assertive in the way we’ve seen McCarthy act in several other movies, but it does not feel earned, because it comes out of nothing that’s happened in the movie up to that point. Spy doesn’t really care about building out McCarthy’s character, because it’s so focused on plot devices and the trappings of the genre it’s poking fun at.
This makes me worry about the new Ghostbusters, which is another genre spoof being directed by Paul Feig. It makes me worry about genre film in general. Trainwreck, in spite of a cartoony world and a somewhat gimmicky premise, manages to sell the main character’s evolution in a way that’s believable and feels somewhat lived-in. I worry that people are shutting down whole parts of their creative brains when they see something as belonging to a genre, instead of just using the genre elements the way Trainwreck uses its fake magazine and its ludicrous celebrity-filled sports medicine world.
(Of course, if Spy had featured an almost unrecognizeable Tilda Swinton playing a psychotic supporting character, it would have been automatically 1000 times better anyway. The Swinton Factor is almost too much of an unfair advantage.)
So Trainwreck isn’t just a better, funnier comedy than Spy—it’s actually a better example of using genre elements to tell a story.