Brittany Runs a Marathon is as low-key as the title would suggest. A story about a young woman abandoning her cavalier lifestyle for a more health-conscious path, it surprisingly avoids the absurd theatrics of similar comedies. There are no grand scenes of Brittany (Jillian Bell) going on a bender in the club and getting into over the top shenanigans. Instead, we see her casually drinking in the club with friends, while secretly contemplating her life choices. There are no loud shouting matches during the climax of the conflict, but rather a pointed and uncomfortable argument in front of relatives. Director Paul Downs Colaizzo doesn’t want us to focus too long on the humor and the gags; this story is about the harsh realities of self-esteem.
This is best exemplified in the way Bell is framed. She doesn’t get the benefit of the typical movie star treatment; instead, her character is framed at intentionally unflattering angles to extentuate Brittany’s unhealthy predicament. Not the most glamorous role for any celebrity to endure – consider this a refute to Instagram filters.
Brittany is introduced to us as a loquacious cynic who’s a comedian in her own mind. However, there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly wrong with her until a doctor’s appointment turns into a referendum on her health and lifestyle. Forced to make some tough life choices, her first instinct is to join a gym. But that falls through quickly when she realizes a membership now is greater than your average cable package. Displaying a great deal of maturity, Brittany sets her sights on small achievements – she focuses on running, at first only placing her goal on just the first block. One block turns into many, until Brittany has motivated herself to enter the New York Marathon.
Meanwhile, her personal life takes a detour when she lands a gig house sitting for a rich couple. This introduces her to Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who is essentially Tom Haverford’s eccentric attempts at cool (including a preposterous get-rich-quick scheme) meets Kevin Federland’s laziness. He’s house sitting too, for some reason, but has taken it a step further and actually moved in, unbeknownst to the owners. Jern and Brittany begrudgingly hit it off as he’s easily a match for her wit and snark, and… well I don’t have to tell you where this is headed.
As Brittany’s new lease on life gives her greater confidence, the double edged sword is that the pressure to be her best self continues to mount. We soon see that low self esteem isn’t easily fixed with a viable support system. Often, we can purposely deny ourselves happiness if we feel it is only a momentary reprieve from our despair before the next gut punch comes along. Brittany certainly displays all the signs of someone who might be willing to forfeit a chance at self improvement if it means avoiding the seemingly inevitable fate of disappointment.
However, the film’s themes, while logically sound, come off as underdeveloped. Specifically in the 3rd act, where certain relationships and backstories are hastily shoved into the film, with the audience having no prior attachment to the conflicts or the new characters introduced. Thankfully, the cast elevates the material regardless of uneven screentime. Lil Rel Howery feels like a toned down, more thoughtful (including a hefty amount of exposition dumps) version of his character in Get Out, playing Brittany’s brother in law. He tries his best to steer her moral compass, as he and his wife’s dynamic with Brittany feels like an extension of Bill Hader’s role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008).
The best scenes in the film are those where Bell can play off her chemistry with the rest of the cast, which is why her scenes with Howery and Ambudkar are the most engaging. It’s also why her screentime with Michaela Watkins, as her neighbor Catherine, come off so flat. Catherine is the one who is most determined to push Brittany to her goal, but the two actors have nary any chemistry, and Watkins seems mismatched as a ‘straight-man’ for Bell’s irreverent energy.
All in all the film is humorous, provoking of self-reflection, and meaningful. However, it falls short of anything grand as much of Brittany’s story is told to us in short-hand for the sake of time. It feels as if Colaizzo is so confident in the authenticity of Brittany’s struggle that he perhaps neglects to chronicle her story in a complete way that feels fully cathartic. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t succeed on many of it’s goals, but rather there’s plenty of narrative context left on the table. There’s a difference between finishing the race and coming in 1st.