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Fun run – ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’

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Movies don’t often surprise us anymore. That’s by design – we live in a world of massive marketing budgets and huge publicity pushes, when every major release receives multiple trailers and press junkets and the whole nine yards.

Then again, there are different kinds of surprises. There are the indie darlings that turn out to be dark horse awards contenders. There are the presumed anointed that wind up falling flat both critically and commercially. And then there are movies that surprise on a more individual level.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” falls into that third category. Specifically, it features a lead performer – in this case, Jillian Bell – known primarily for comedic work taking the turn into something with a bit more substance. That’s not to say that comedy is somehow insubstantial, only that it’s interesting to see comedic performers taking dramatic risks.

This movie is that risk for Bell, a gifted comedian who displays a degree of emotional vulnerability and honesty that is a significant departure from the work we’re accustomed to seeing from her. The comedy isn’t gone – she’s as funny as ever – but it’s coming from a genuine place, informed by real feeling. It’s a smart, sharp story that manages to balance a comedic coarseness with an underlying message that is legitimately inspirational.

Brittany (Jillian Bell, “Sword of Trust”) is a woman in her mid-20s, living in New York City. She’s embracing a hard-partying lifestyle, spending her time in a haze of drinking, toxic relationships and overeating; essentially, she has resigned herself to a world in which she is “the funny one,” the overweight friend whose jokes hide her hurt.

But when she goes to a new doctor (to try and scam an Adderall prescription), he gives her some unsettling news – he tells her that her health is a real concern and that if she doesn’t lose 50 pounds or so, she could be in for some legitimate long-term issues.

Initially, she resists, but it isn’t long before Brittany accepts the idea that she might need to change. Her friend and roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee, TV’s “Take Two”) is too self-absorbed to really be supportive, but Brittany inadvertently finds some new acquaintances who might help her on her journey. There’s Catherine (Michaela Watkins, “Good Boys”), a photographer who has a studio space in Brittany’s building and invites Brittany to join her running group. And there’s Seth (Micah Stock, TV’s “Bonding”), a fellow running neophyte looking to improve his health as well.

The three become training partners; it isn’t long before Brittany proposes a challenge – that the three of them train for and run the New York City Marathon, slightly less than a year away.

In an effort to improve her financial situation along with her health, Brittany gets a second job as a house/dogsitter. It’s there that she meets Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar, “Game Over, Man!”), the night sitter who has also gone ahead and started living in the house. The two clash, but eventually come to an understanding.

Brittany seems to be getting her life in order, but there are still obstacles looming; there’s no way of knowing whether she will be strong enough to deal with these complications (both external and internal) and achieve the goals that she has set for herself.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is the brainchild of writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo. Best known as a playwright, Colaizzo has done some TV work, but this project marks his feature debut. He based the film on the true story of Brittany O’Neill, Colaizzo’s roommate who had her own similar personal journey. On watching the film, the playwright’s roots are evident – there are stretches that reflect the scenic intimacy that can spring from stage plays.

Of course, a film like this pins its hopes for success squarely on its lead. This kind of narrative makes very specific demands of the actor tasked with carrying it off – demands that Bell is uniquely suited to not only meet but exceed. She’s very funny, of course, with well-established comedy chops and a particular knack for a certain brand of crassness. But it’s her ability to access her own vulnerability that really makes this story sing. There’s a verisimilitude here, built on the sorts of raw nerves that only a truly confident performer would be comfortable enough to expose. That blend of humor and pathos creates a nuanced and sympathetic character – one inhabited fully by Bell.

The supporting cast is strong. Watkins and Stock get to play with some surprising complexity, although Lee isn’t really given enough to do. She’s good, but she isn’t given the same kind of run that Watkins and Stock get. Ambudkar perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of aimless man-child. And Lil Rel Howrey steals a couple of scenes as Brittany’s slightly older, much wiser brother-in-law.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a funny, surprisingly tender character study about what happens when you want to be better than you are … and what that even means. It is about a woman’s willingness to turn her life around for reasons that are wholly and unashamedly her own. It’s smart and sports more than a few sharp edges.

Remember – it’s not about winning, it’s about finishing. The journey of 26.2 miles begins with a single step.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 September 2019 05:14

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