Every star needs its vehicle and Jillian Bell runs a marathon performance (and more) in Brittany Runs A Marathon, her breakout film and one of the best crowd-pleasers of the year. Based on a friend of writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo, the eponymous “Brittany” who decides to run the New York City Marathon, the story stars Jillian Bell as a 27 year old New Yorker who can’t get her life together. In an Amy Schumer sort of way montage, we see her binge drink into an oblivion and make lots of questionable life choices. Deciding to visit a local doctor to get some prescription meds for recreational use, she is struck by reality; she is very unhealthy and will continue to deteriorate if she doesn’t try to lose some weight. After divulging her news to her neighbour Katherine (Michaela Watkins), she is convinced to take up running, which inevitably turns into full on training for the marathon.
It’s a new road for Brittany and leads her to a range of new challenges and experiences that change her outlook. She begins to re-evaluate her friendship with narcissist Instagrammer Gretchen (Alice Lee), she befriends a funny and kind gay father of two Seth (Micah Stock) and begins house-sitting for a wealthy family alongside a loveable troublemaker Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar). He’s equally as lost as she is, but we see their relationship slowly blossom through fights and romantic moments. It’s at this point that Brittany begins to lose weight – yes, but also we see that her life has changed and her outlook is completely different.
Brittany Runs A Marathon is brave in its approach to fitness and healthy lifestyles. It never seeks to mock or fat shame Brittany. In fact her weight loss is not even a core aspect of the film. There is no concept of an ideal weight, but rather Brittany’s transformation is more about self improvement and gaining a new lease on life. Bell shows this through her acting, particularly in the early scenes where she begins running – you can feel every moment of excruciating pain. Colaizzo’s direction also makes you feel the same, as if you too might be running for the first time. It’s not an inspiration story with a few brand endorsements, ultimately selling exercise as the “cure to fatness”. Brittany taking up running is not the story, but a conduit to change in her life.
Bell, seemingly a veteran to comedy with Office Christmas Party and Rough Night behind her, shines here and walks a fine line between comedy and drama. The transformation the audience sees is subtle and without high drama. This is a real person with real problems, not an overplayed archetype of a brash New York woman. Bell plays Brittany’s insecurity well and with the sort of trepidation that one has when exploring a new lifestyle.
The film does come across formulaic which may lessen the emotion the story evokes and while the happy ending does come to celebrate the achievement of the main character, it doesn’t gloss over the ugly parts either. It feels like both a personal film but a universal one, which is why it succeeds.
Brittany Runs A Marathon and into unexpected territory with a script that is funny and also emotionally affecting. Bell is excellent and shows off her acting chops here. Brilliant.
There are silly moments and the story follows a formulaic pattern, leaning into conformity at times.
Originally published on Back Row, 30 August, 2019.