The loud, lewd stand-up comedian follows in the footsteps of the comic actresses of the 1930s and 1940s

You know the bench the moment you see it. It’s the one that overlooks the Queensboro Bridge in New York – the spot where, in Manhattan, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton watch dawn break over the East River in silhouette. It’s one of the greatest views in the movies – a shot that sums up the way a whole city can somehow feel like it belongs to you, even when you’re just a tiny speck in it. 

So when the same bench pops up in the new Judd Apatow film Trainwreck, with a couple sitting side by side in the grey morning light, we know exactly where we are and what it counts for.

"I think this is where Woody Allen met Soon-Yi," a voice croaks. It’s Amy – which is to say, the actress Amy Schumer and also her character of the same name, a hard-living New York journalist who’s just embarked on an atypically stable relationship. The shot holds on the couple, allowing us to share in their private moment, until Amy leans over and undoes her date’s belt. 

"You don’t need to see that," she says in voice-over, only a little sheepishly. And she’s right, we don’t: by this point in the film, we have a reasonable idea of what’s coming next.

The Queensboro Bridge has been a place of fresh starts since long before Allen’s time. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway describes it as the point where "the city [is] seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty of the world". In that auspicious light, the shot isn’t an homage, it’s an announcement: New York is Amy’s city now.

Amy Schumer in Trainwreck Credit: Universal Pictures/Mary Cybulski

Few modern comedies have the nerve to wade right out into the central current of cinema like this, but Trainwreck has the thighs for it. It’s an important film as well as a funny one – perhaps the first decisive lunge forward for mainstream, women-led Hollywood comedy since 2011’s Bridesmaids – and it makes perfect sense that Schumer is taking it.

If her name and work aren’t familiar, you’d be forgiven for thinking the above sequence sounds a bit like Bridget Jones on cheap pinot grigio (or maybe Bridget Jones on even cheaper pinot grigio). In fact, it sweeps aside the perpetually panicking, calorie-counting orthodoxy and replaces it with something new – which, as we’ll see, happens to be something very old indeed as well.

Though Trainwreck will be most British cinemagoers’ first encounter with Schumer, she’s a well-known comedian in the United States, where her Comedy Central sketch show Inside Amy Schumer has just finished its third series (a fourth is on the way). Her rise to stardom hasn’t been fast, exactly, but it has been relatively smooth: she started performing at comedy clubs in her home town of New York in 2004, when she was 23, and by 2010, via an appearance on a stand-up reality show (she came fourth), she was headlining Comedy Central Presents, the US equivalent of BBC One’s Live at the Apollo.

Amber Rose and Amy Schumer performing in Schumer's Comedy Central sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer Credit: Rex Features/Courtesy Ev/REX Shutterstock

The film, which is based on her own experiences as a New York singleton, moves her up another step. Her character, Amy, is making the most of being young-ish, free-ish and single-ish. She has a boyfriend – played, with a brilliant twang of unlikeliness, by the WWE star John Cena (although Schumer did herself once date a professional wrestler) – but they’re not exclusive, because Amy couldn’t be. She enjoys sex in the same way I often enjoy a Zinger Tower burger: it’s uncomplicated, readily available and immediately satisfying. 

This view was instilled in Amy at a young age by her father, who taught her to recite, after his own affairs destroyed his marriage to Amy’s mother, "monogamy never works". Her younger sister, the white sheep of the family, has since settled down with a husband and a stepson, but Amy’s still very much on the market – the walk of shame might as well be her morning jogging route.

The Amy in Trainwreck is a more rounded, sympathetic version of Schumer’s own stage persona, finessed over 11 years on the stand-up circuit. She’s shallow, smug and proudly ignorant about the lives and struggles of almost everyone who isn’t her – but she’s also the product of a society that openly valorises all three traits. The joke, in other words, is on us. Amy’s promiscuity isn’t straightforwardly the cause of her unhappiness: in fact, it’s often a welcome respite from it.

While watching Trainwreck, I couldn’t help but think of another Amy: "Amazing" Amy Elliot-Dunne as played by Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s deliciously evil social satire Gone Girl. When Pike’s Amy sneeringly talks about the "Cool Girl" stereotype idolised by modern men – the "hot", "game", "fun", toned and depilated young woman who guzzles beer and tumbles into bed on a whim – it’s more or less Schumer’s Amy she’s describing. And what Fincher’s film (and, equally, the Gillian Flynn novel on which it was based) tells us with a thriller plot – that, when taken to its logical extremes, the pressure to be a Cool Girl results in a Tasmanian Devil-like force of whirling self-destruction – Schumer’s comedy points out just as persuasively with laughter.

Here, for example, is a typically bruising line from Schumer’s 2011 stand-up album Cutting, delivered to a male audience member she has described as attractive: "I wouldn’t even report you if you date-raped me. Well, I would, but just to see you again at the line-up. 'Hey, can he see me?' "

Joking about date-rape may not immediately strike you as a worthy feminist act – and I’m sure there are many people who would argue that it could never be one. But there’s a compressed desperation and horror in that imaginary three-line scenario – the pay-off, which is presumably Schumer talking to a policeman while she looks through the two-way mirror, is a fiendish final knife-twist – that drags entrenched attitudes about victimhood into the sunlight more efficiently and mercilessly than any earnestly argued 2,000-word think-piece ever could.

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader at the premiere of Trainwreck Credit: Rex Features/BEI/REX Shutterstock

If you’re not quite convinced, look at Football Town Nights, a sketch from Inside Amy Schumer. In it, Schumer plays the wife of an American college football coach who has controversially introduced a "no raping" rule in an attempt to improve his team’s game. The sketch starts as a darkly absurd riff on the enduring association between professional sportsmen and sexual assault – "Can we rape at away games?" and "What if she thinks it’s rape, but I don’t?" are two questions asked by the puzzled and disappointed young players. But as before, the real kick in the stomach comes at the very end.

It’s the night of the big game, and the coach has time for one last pep talk. "How do I get through to you boys that football isn’t about rape?" he booms. "It’s about violently dominating anyone that gets in the way of what you want. That other team, they ain’t just gonna lay down there and give it to you. You gotta go out there and take it!" 

Ever since I’d first heard the term "rape culture" years ago – the idea that men sexually attacking women is, on some unspeakable, ocean-floor-deep level, socially acceptable in modern Western society – I’d been sceptical about its existence. That sketch changed my mind in the space of a punchline.

One of the central pillars of Schumer’s comedy, and the one on which almost everything in Trainwreck is balanced, is a flat rejection of any additional guilt women might feel over making a mess of one or more aspects of their lives, purely by virtue of their gender.

"On stage… I’m saying, 'I have had a lot of sex, I’ve got friends who are pregnant, I’ve got [the sexually-transmitted infection] HPV'," she said in a 2011 interview. "So when all you girls do that, don’t feel that bad about it, because it’s happening."

Writing material for an exaggerated stage persona is not without its pitfalls, and some "ironically racist" material in Schumer’s early stand-up doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny. In June, the comedian Monica Heisey described her as having a "shockingly large blind spot around race". The gags are delivered with the intentional blithe bigotry of her stage persona, but there’s also a total lack of purpose to them beyond prodding at touchy subjects in order to make people squeak. Interestingly, though, the criticism doesn’t hold for the race-based humour in Trainwreck: a joke about Amy’s lack of black friends, for example, is plainly and excruciatingly made at the character’s expense. If it was a blind spot, she seems to have adjusted her mirror.

What Schumer’s doing isn’t new, but it’s old enough to feel like it. Her forerunners are the comic actresses of the Thirties and early Forties – a golden decade that was effectively the last hurrah for equal-opportunity comedy, before the Motion Picture Production Code began its censorious dominion. Notable trainwrecks of the era – and I mean the term as a towering compliment – include Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century (1934), Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937) and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934), who watches Clark Gable try fruitlessly to flag down a lift with his outstretched thumb before stopping one herself, in a matter of moments, with her uncovered leg. ("Why didn’t you take off all your clothes?" grumbles Gable in the back of the car. "You could have stopped 40 cars." "I’ll remember that when I need 40 cars," Colbert replies, primly.)

Amy Schumer and basketballer LeBron James in Trainwreck Credit: Universal Pictures/Mary Cybulski

Probably the alpha-trainwreck of the era, though – the real brakes-screeching, steam-hissing disaster that thunders through five barns and a chicken coop – was Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). Hutton plays Trudy Kockenlocker, a promiscuously patriotic small-town gal who ends up pregnant by one of potentially dozens of American soldiers after a bleary all-night leaving party. It’s the kind of role Schumer could still ruffle feathers with today, because the message that underpins Preston Sturges’s film is that a woman pursuing sexual satisfaction, however catastrophically, is a cause for celebration rather than concern.

Goodness knows how Sturges got away with it at the time – the film darts between the Code’s regulations like an escaped prisoner skirting searchlights – but flirtatious, unrestrained, smart, generous Trudy unquestionably is the movie’s heroine. 

"I don’t think you would hate me for it, because it is not unkind, nor does it derive its comedy from the embarrassment of the poor young girl," the director replied to a horrified fan who’d written to tell him they would not be seeing his outrageous new movie. "The story has much love and tenderness. At least I think it does…"

Compare that to, say, the Bridget Jones films, which mine humour from the lead’s constant humiliation, both in bed and out of it, and you realise how much Schumer’s comedy represents a welcome and decisive break from the recent past. 

If Trainwreck had just been incredibly funny, that would have been enough, and other films of the ongoing women-in-comedy resurgence – particularly The Heat and Spy, both directed by Paul Feig and co-starring Melissa McCarthy – got by very respectably on that alone. But there’s something under this film’s skin – an urgency to steer the conversation about women and men into new and wincingly uncomfortable places – that feels like an itch that Schumer is only just starting to scratch.

Her first film made me want to see her second – and third, and fifth, and 10th. If Amy can make it even half as far as Woody, we’ll know the world has changed.