In a slow year for mainstream comedy pictures I’ve found myself trying to find hidden gems through smaller features and niche productions. After all the genre tends to be at its best when it actually has something to say rather than depending on cheap gags and fart jokes to draw a crowd. One smaller release that caught my eye and has been getting a lot of buzz in recent weeks is “Brittany Runs a Marathon”, a film that focuses on body positivity but also isn’t afraid to go to some pretty honest places about self-confidence and the effort it takes to reach one’s goals. Starring a capable comedic actress in Jillian Bell and written and directed by playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, this real-life inspired feature takes one of today’s most popular pastimes, running, and one of society’s biggest health concerns, body mass and obesity, and attempts to tell a smart and engaging story that’s both funny and inspiring. How well does it succeed? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Brittany Runs a Marathon”.
“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is based on director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s experiences with his real-life former roommate Brittany O’Neill who turned her life around after discovering the joys of running. Jillian Bell plays main character Brittany Forgler, a 27-year-old party girl with low self esteem who discovers her unhealthy habits are having a negative effect on her body. Inspired by her seemingly perfect neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins) and an early mid-life crisis Brittany decides to take up running to get healthier starting with one block and gradually working her way to bigger challenges. She soon forms a bond with Catherine and another runner named Seth (Micah Stock) and the trio agree to put themselves to the ultimate test by running the New York Marathon. However, as the friends train together Brittany discovers that while her body is getting healthier her self-esteem and mental state remain unchanged forcing her to face her own negative opinions of herself and the world around her if she truly wants to become a better person.
I’ll say this, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is far from a bad movie, but I don’t think it’s quite as impressive as many people have made it out to be. With that said there’s a lot to love here. “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is in a class of comedy films that I can’t help but appreciate, ones that favor smartly written and more relatable comedy while still be able to take their story seriously. While there are plenty of laughs, mostly driven by Jillian Bell’s charismatic performance, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” never forgets what it has to say and commits to its often brutally honest narrative through most of the run time. This could have easily gone over the deep end and become a raunchy comedy about a fat woman trying to run her way to a thinner body. It could have gone the opposite direction as well leaning too much on drama and forgetting to remind us life is still fund in spite of the hardships. What we do get are some hilarious moments where Brittany’s inability to keep up with the pack is the center of the joke, but we’re inspired by how she overcomes these obstacles and get better turning running gags into satisfying life lessons about perseverance and fighting through the pain to get to a goal.
One thing that impressed me the most is that in this day and age where body image and obesity are huge topics of discussion and it’s not exactly considered politically correct to acknowledge that being fat or overweight isn’t healthy “Brittany Runs a Marathon” has the balls to tell both the main character and the audience that ignorance of one’s health is not okay but also focuses on the deeper benefits of a healthier lifestyle beyond weight loss. “Brittany Runs a Marathon” constantly rides the careful line between being judgmental and being truthful and in the end we see that Brittany’s new lifestyle wasn’t supposed to be about losing the weight, it was supposed to be about feeling good about herself and finding something to make her life more meaningful to her. The added benefit of looking and feeling better is merely a result of a lifestyle change Brittany utilizes to help herself feel more alive. I think this is a powerfully honest message to send to people in today’s world. The goal should not be to simply look better. It should be to feel better, to find new joy and purpose in one’s life, not an effort to conform to societal expectations. Being healthy is important and so is self-esteem. In the context of the film Brittany loses her weight but she can never really feel good about herself, still seeing herself an unattractive and choosing to avoid taking help from people rather than embracing her friends. She only feels better about herself when she realizes that running gave her purpose and something to look forward to.
Now with all that said “Brittany Runs a Marathon” ALMOST sticks the landing, but it loses its way briefly in the third act and that’s where I felt the film was less than perfect. Brittany suffers a major mental breakdown that sees the movie embrace one of the most cliche comedy narrative tools in the book by giving us the out of left field moment where the main character destroys their own happiness by being too stubborn or unable to see the error of their ways despite all the progress they’ve made thus delving back into the monotony of their past selves. It’s an all-too-often utilized trope to push the characters towards the climax with one final whammy to put the audience on edge when we all know they’re going to figure things out. It honestly frustrated me and took me out of the film for a few minutes when I realized “Brittany Runs a Marathon” was simply leading up to the cliche. I know it’s a story beat that almost every comedy movie seems to feel required to touch on, but here it just felt so blatant. This movie is better than that. Sadly, this also plays into what for me was the most preachy part of the film where Brittany outright explodes on an overweight woman at a family party bringing about the mean spirited criticism of obesity that the rest of the film seemed to try so hard to avoid. Then the film doubles back and tries to recover by turning this moment into a lesson of acceptance forcing a revelation from Brittany about her own self-image and why she wanted to run in the first place. While I realize this moment’s purpose in the film and can appreciate what it’s trying to say in the moment, it’s an oddly out of place scene capping off what is by far the weakest part of the movie that feels uninspired and by the books in an otherwise perfectly serviceable and unique story.
Despite the fact that “Brittany Runs a Marathon” doesn’t quite stick the landing in my opinion it’s still a worthwhile watch. Genuinely funny moments mix with a powerful message about finding purpose and pushing to accomplish your goals to create an engaging, well-acted and competently written dramady. Jillian Bell is a standout as she is finally given a worthy role of her amazing comedic talents while the rest of the cast feels committed and fully on board with selling both the humor and the heart of this real-life story. Even at its worst “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is one of the more fun and well-paced comedies of 2019 and its impressive tact and willingness to touch on some harsh realities should be commended. “Brittany Runs a Marathon” may not be the best comedy of the year, but it’s one that deserves a lot more attention than it has received.