By Kim Hughes
It’s impossible to overstate the charm offensive that is Brittany Runs a Marathon, which is to beleaguered, presumed-brain dead summertime movie-goers what a ray of sunshine is to a tulip in March: a lifeline and an affirmation that not everything withered in the preceding months. It’s also the kind of movie Rebel Wilson could have made but didn’t, luckily for us.
Written and directed by American playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, the film stars actor and Groundlings member Jillian Bell — here caustic, brilliant, and really freaking engaging — as the title character, a schlubby, hard-partying, apathetic layabout who realizes with the advent of age 30 that life is passing her by.
Consistent with her inch-high standards, Brittany seeks life-improvement shortcuts, and a scene where a doctor suggests she lose weight rather than start using prescription uppers gives the film’s trailer its mightiest zinger. (“Fifty five pounds is the weight of a Siberian Husky. You want me to pull a medium-sized working dog off of my body?")
But the full scene yields an even funnier line. That’s true throughout Brittany Runs a Marathon, which winningly juxtaposes scorching humour — much of it snidely self-deprecating — against biting pathos, rather like life itself. This is a comedy of many great and recognizable dimensions that is unafraid to show just how awful we can be to ourselves in the course of discovering our peace.
Following the doctor’s advice, and as a first-step towards overall betterment, Brittany decides to get in shape, an endeavour that eventually leads her to dream of competing in the New York City Marathon of the film’s title. The flabby-to-fit gags range from somewhat predictable (being outpaced by slow-moving children) to snortingly comic (no spoilers here), with Brittany learning that bodies can function as more than mere receptacles for bar shots and self-loathing.
Along the way, Brittany picks up positive new friends while shedding toxic old ones though throughout her transformation, she remains her own worst enemy, incapable of distinguishing a helping hand from a handout. One scene, where an embittered Brittany cruelly dresses down a kind but overweight woman in the way only a formerly overweight person could, clobbers and induces squirming in equal measure. Yup, shit gets real.
A parallel plot featuring an unlikely love interest (played by Utkarsh Ambudkar) is as effervescent as the main narrative arc, allowing the film to explore themes of gender and race alongside weightism (can we call it that?). Supporting characters too, are fully drawn.
To wit, Brittany’s ostensibly perfect upstairs neighbour, Catherine (Michaela Watkins, superb) — who Brittany and her obsessively YouTube-ing roommate derisively call Moneybags Martha — has enormous if well-hidden life-challenges of her own but has found a way to manage them by tackling small goals.
When Brittany finally gets out of her own way, Catherine and running partner Seth (yes, sigh, the film has the obligatory gay BFF) cheerlead her to success but naturally, success comes in a different form than would have been apparent at the start.
We’ve seen this story before — woman finds her true self through tough choices and supportive friends (How To Be Single, Isn’t It Romantic, even Miss Congeniality), achieving a new life and a recalibrated state of mind.
Some are certain to mistake the weight-loss-as-hallmark-of-female-success as some kind of patriarchal bullshit writ large. Maybe. But Brittany’s themes have never been tackled with more wit, heart, and damn good one liners. One of the best comedies of the year.
Brittany Runs a Marathon. Written and directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo. Starring Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Lil Rel Howery. Opens wide August 30.