'Brittany Runs a Marathon': Film Review | Sundance 2019
Paul Downs Colaizzo’s comedy stars Jillian Bell as a young woman who's determined to turn her life around by losing weight and training for a marathon.
Starting out as a raucously amusing character piece about a plus-sized 27-year-old woman, Brittany Runs a Marathon eventually loses its funny bone as it turns into a virtual blueprint for the sort of earnest, politically correct self-empowerment film that is often held up as some kind of ideal. Does a person, or a film, have to sacrifice a sense of humor just because they’ve gotten with the program? So it would seem in playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo’s first feature film, in which Jillian Bell gives (until the last act) a sparkling performance as an adrift young woman who makes the now-or-never effort to pull her body and life together.
Snappy dialogue writing seems to come very easily to Colaizzo, author of the prize-winning 2013 play Really Really. Brittany (a protean Jillian Bell), who’s just scraping by living in Manhattan, has a sharp-tongued comment ready for just about anything, be it a social observation or a self-deprecating remark. She’s hilarious to be around, truly a one-woman laugh factory.
The reality, though, is that she’s very alone in life and uses humor as a means to protect herself from constantly dwelling on her static, lonely existence, which involves far too much booze and ill-advised partying. She’s 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds, and when she finally does decide to see a doctor, it’s with the idea of bringing home some Adderall. He informs her she’s in worse shape than she could imagine. So what does she do that night? It’s straight to a club, where she goes off with a hot guy to the bathroom.
But, as she’s told, a long journey begins with a single step, and Brittany finally gets with the program, signing up at a gym and setting the modest goal of running a mile. The director and actress find all sorts of little details that help define Brittany’s life, the self-consciousness, embarrassments and awkwardness caused by her size. But soon one mile becomes two and a window appears that seems to offer the hope of a real turnaround.
So, too, does her domestic situation change, as she splits with one annoying roommate only to fall into a bizarre domestic arrangement with a young man named Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Brittany comes on as a daytime apartment sitter while Jern has night duty, but the hyper-verbal, slippery-seeming and immediately annoying guy stays there full-time and urges her to do the same. He makes the immediate impression of a lazy, untrustworthy layabout and all-around jerk, but she tries to cope.
Hearteningly, Brittany buckles down, stops drinking, drops 35 pounds as she adds miles to her regular runs and joins a dating site. Along with some friends, her ambition swells to the point where she’s going to run in the New York Marathon, all 26 miles of it. After vicariously suffering with her through all her personal and social travails, you feel not only good but proud of her.
But that shouldn’t mean that she has to lose her great, funny personality. Suddenly, a new chapter begins and it’s as if the script is being written by a different writer; this new Brittany is quiet, reflective and short on a sense of humor. Every family around her is non-traditional in one way or the other, and after the outrageous and bawdy humor that characterizes the film’s first section, you’d think some winks would be extended to this state of affairs. But, no, it’s suddenly a textbook for political correctness, deeply conventional in subscribing to every contemporary bromide.
The last stretch chronicles Brittany’s epic effort to run in the marathon, which is extensively documented in an ultra-elaborate way that’s also out of step with the tenor of all that’s come before. Brittany’s commitment and achievement are exceptional — she’s really come a long, long way, to the point that she seems like a different person. And one we don’t know nearly as well as the one we did over the course of the first hour.
Up to that turning point, Bell is a wonder in the role — self-effacing, tart, funny as hell and deeply sympathetic. Seeing what comes later, you realize that the actress needs to have been kitted out with some combination of a fat suit and exceptional makeup to make her so convincingly large. But humor ends up being replaced by a cloying earnestness as the finish line comes into view. Do the self-deprecating remarks really need to vanish along with the weight? It’s hard to imagine why.
Up to this point, Colaizzo’s dialogue often crackles with modern idioms and good pithy comments, flowing from the distinct characters in easy fashion. As a director, he’s paced the action well. He knows what he’s doing, even when he’s doing the wrong thing.
Production companies: Material Films, Pictures Films
Cast: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Mickey Day, Alice Lee
Director-screenwriter: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Producers: Matthew Plouffe, Tobey Maguire, Margot Hand
Executive producers: Richard Weinberg, Jillian Bell, Paul Downs Colaizzo
Director of photography: Seamus Tierney
Production designer: Erin Magill
Costume designer: Stacey Berman
Editors: Casey Brooks, Peter Teschner
Music: Duncan Thum
Casting: Laura Rosenthal, Maribeth Fox
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)