Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019)

25 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Every actor needs that one role that’s perfect for them to display their true talents. For Jillian Bell, a comedienne best known for side roles in “22 Jump Street,” “The Night Before,” “Office Christmas Party,” and “Fist Fight,” among others, that role is taking center-stage in the comedy-drama “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” I’ll be honest—I wasn’t rushing to see this film because I’m generally not a fan of Bell’s previous works (she didn’t do a thing for me). But I’m glad I did, because now I’ve seen what she can really do when she’s in a starring role that shows exactly what an impressive actress she is.

She has her usual dry cynical wit that she’s become best known for. But unlike her previous outings in film, I don’t think she’s improvising as much as trusting the material she’s working with. And it’s a truly solid, character-driven screenplay delivered by the film’s director Paul Downs Colaizzo. (This film is also Colaizzo’s debut.) As a result, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” presents an effective coming-of-age story with an excellent performance from a more-than-capable leading lady.

If there’s something more special than a comedy that can make an audience laugh, it’s one that can make them feel. For every time I’m laughing through the film, there was also a moment with harsh truth to it that made me feel for the characters and the situations they were in.

The titular Brittany (Bell) is a mess. She’s a 28-year-old party animal. She’s often sarcastic and bitter and cruel. She’s selfish. She uses humor as a defense mechanism. (I mean, don’t we all, sometimes?) She can be cold. She needs to get her life together. What sets her on this personal journey to better herself is a trip to an inexpensive doctor who will hopefully prescribe her with Adderall. Who knew he’d be the real deal and show concerns for Brittany’s health given that she’s close to morbidly obese?

She of course laughs off the doc’s advice to lose 50 lbs. at first, but soon enough, she does take his words to heart and decides to take up running regularly. Her party-hardy social-media-obsessed roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee) doesn’t take the idea seriously, but luckily, their neighbor, Catherine aka “Money Bags Marge” (Michaela Watkins, one of today’s finest character actors), is a fitness enthusiast…thus, it’s time for Brittany to stop referring to Catherine as “Money Bags Marge” if she’s going to ask for her help.

And help Brittany, Catherine does. Brittany joins her running club, where they both meet Seth (Micah Stock), who is insecure about his being out-of-shape, since his husband is in shape and their kid has that certain children’s energy and Seth wants to get in shape before they adopt a second child. (That way, he can keep up, you see.) Brittany, Catherine, and Seth jog and work together in preparation for running in the New York City Marathon. Can Brittany lose the weight in time and change her life in the process?

Well, yeah—you can guess she does. But it’s not an easy road to walk (or run). Along the way, Brittany learns some difficult realities about herself, the people around her, and the attitudes she’s been giving towards it all. It’s compelling and works effectively. It’s also fun to see other people in her life, such as her brother-in-law Demetrius (Lil Rel Howery of “Get Out”—do I even need to say he’s hilarious in this?) and Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a purposeless millennial who also works with Brittany in the same dog-sitting job (and may also be Brittany’s potential love interest). They help Brittany open her eyes to who she is and the better person she can become, because she is the only true obstacle she has to face in order to change.

There, of course, has to be a clincher—a moment that really shows Brittany at her worst so that she can turn away from the others and truly self-reflect so that she can become a truly better person. And unfortunately, that moment, which occurs at Demetrius’ birthday party where she snaps at an overweight female guest, is my least favorite part of the movie. We’re supposed to see Brittany at the end of her rope before she bounces back and learns the error of her ways, but this scene wasn’t written as strongly as it could have been and it sort of came off as random rather than plausible.

But we still get to root for Brittany at her best after seeing her at her worst, and I’m glad to be rooting for her when (spoiler alert) she does run the marathon, as the title suggests. And much of it is not only thanks to a sharply written script but also to Jillian Bell’s sense of conviction that shows she truly has range as an actress. Brittany has so much baggage, but that doesn’t stop us from rooting for her and caring for her. “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a pleasant surprise.

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