|Original caricature by Jeff York of Jillian Bell in the title role of BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON. (copyright 2019)|
Some movie comedies play as minor miracles. Those are the ones whose scripts zig when you think they’re going to zag. Their characterizations earn the laughs, rather than rat-a-tat punchlines. And they go to the darker places that you usually only find in dramas. Such films are a rare breed, but BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON is one. Its humor never feels jokey or hokey. The central character is much pessimistic than most leads. And despite the title, that namesake race isn’t the film’s big finish. Throughout, this is a summer movie that consistently surprises and delights, never losing its footing throughout its running time.
Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a drifting woman, cresting into her 30’s with no career, no ambition, and nary a friend. When she visits her doctor, feeling sluggish after too much fast food and partying, he informs her of a dangerous Body Mass Index and potential heart problems. Brit’s doc advises her to drop 55 pounds, which she dryly quips is like pulling a Siberian Huskie out of her. Brittany is resistant to the change, defaulting to smart-ass quips to avoid responsibility. Still, she doesn’t want to have a stroke or heart attack, so she starts an exercise regime.
With that as the premise, there are so many predictable ways that this comedy could have gone. Fortunately, at almost every turn, writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo chooses the atypical. It starts with his approach to the main character. Instead of casting a cute-as-a-button ingenue and dressing her down, and then ensuring that she turns into a swan by story’s end, he goes with a far more exciting choice. Jillian Bell is a very talented and attractive actress, but she’s not a star (yet), and she has an ‘everywoman’ quality to her that both grounds and amplifies the material. With Bell in the title role, the film succeeds as a laugh-out-loud comedy, as well as a more in-depth and moving, character study.
Colaizzo usurps convention too by surrounding Brittany with a more unique supporting cast as well. Usually, a character like her glamorous roomie Gretchen (Alice Lee) would emerge as a key player, providing able support and comic zingers. Instead, Brittany recognizes social media butterfly Gretchen’s selfishness early in the game and forges ahead to find a better support system. Indeed, part of Brittany’s journey of self-discovery is not only determining what she can do as an individual but in eliminating those who are already obstacles as well.
Brittany makes new friends out of two fellow participants from the running group she’s joined. Catherine (a superbly underplaying Michaela Watkins) is a successful artist with a troubled past who lives in Brittany’s building, and Seth (Micah Stock), a gay man who shares Brittany’s love/hate relationship with exercise. She also bonds with Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an acerbic house-sitter she meets. All of these characters could have been stock ones, but Colaizzo writes them with more depth and surprising character attributes and flaws. Like Brittany, they’re three-dimensional people, not always likable, but still relatable.
And while Brittany sets up finishing the New York City Marathon as her ultimate goal, the movie isn’t as interested in it as the title would suggest. It’s all the other parts of Brittany’s momentum that become the focus of the story, a tale of incremental progress. She finds a decent job, but not a great one. She learns to open up with people, but not entirely. Brittany also loses weight but doesn’t transform into the belle of the ball.
Even more realistically, she hangs onto a lot of her self-loathing and sarcasm, occasionally taking two steps back for each move she makes that propels her forward. People can change, the film tells us, but not in the wholly transformative ways that movies about underdogs so often suggest.
At times, Colaizzo over-emphasizes various plot points in both words and direction, but they’re not serious stumbles. And Bell always keeps us rooting for Brittany, even when her awful side is in full tantrum. All in all, the film is a funny, frank, and earnest presentation of a woman who discovers that being an active and passionate participant is the purest form of victory, whether it’s in a marathon or everyday life.