“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is as simple and declarative as a movie title gets. The film itself, blessedly, is anything but.
A singular amalgam of humor, heartache and self-help that won the U.S. dramatic audience award at Sundance, “Brittany” resolutely goes its own way, entertaining us as richly as anything that’s come out in awhile.
Written and directed by first-timer Paul Downs Colaizzo and starring Jillian Bell in a performance that defines breakout, “Brittany” not only goes places you won’t be expecting but it also manages to be simultaneously sympathetic and unsentimental, a picture with a laugh-out-loud sense of humor that can be as real as hell when it needs to be.
Though Colaizzo has never made a film before, he is an award-winning playwright, and he puts his sharp, on-point dialogue at the service of a story loosely inspired by his best friend, Brittany, a hard partyer who decided to change her life by taking on the New York Marathon.
Determined, he’s said, to “take a stock character from big American comedies, the ‘fat sidekick,’ and turn the camera squarely in her direction,” Colaizzo made a brilliant choice when he went with Bell in the role.
An actress whose devastating comic delivery has been the highlight of films like “22 Jump Street” and “Office Christmas Party,” Bell so immersed herself in the role that she lost weight herself to mirror what her character went through.
It’s a part that both echoes Bell’s previous wildly funny performances and audaciously goes into an entirely new and unexpectedly vulnerable direction.
It’s exactly 12:37 p.m. on an average day in Astoria, Queens, when we encounter Brittany, looking like an unmade bed and snoring away in an actual unmade bed as an alarm clock futilely attempts to get her up.
Brittany does have a part-time job working at a little theater, but we quickly see that she is someone who lives for the nightlife, up till dawn every chance she gets and using her stiletto wit to entertain her pals and keep everyone else at bay.
Hung over and looking for a compliant doctor to write her a prescription for Adderall, Brittany ends up hearing some unpleasant, unwelcome news.
If she doesn’t lose 45 to 55 pounds (“that’s the weight of a Siberian husky,” she cracks), the damage to her health will be severe.
Brittany’s desire to “get a teeny bit healthier” gets zero sympathy from her roommate and fellow party animal Gretchen (Alice Lee), a young woman whose career goal is to become a social media influencer.
The person she feels closest to is her brother-in-law Demetrius (Lil Rel Howery), the man who raised her, but he lives in Philadelphia, too far away to help.
On the other hand, the last person Brittany wants to hear from is a neighbor she calls Moneybags Martha (her real name is Catherine) because the woman has an apartment in Manhattan as well as her studio space in Brittany’s building.
Catherine (engagingly played by Michaela Watkins) is a committed runner who Brittany imagines has the kind of problem-free life she can only dream about.
But then, in one of the unexpectedly powerful scenes that alternate with the film’s comic moments, the two women have an electric confrontation where all the pain and resentment underpinning Brittany’s life pours out.
Almost against her will, Brittany begins to run, literally one block at a time. She joins Catherine’s running club and bonds with Seth (Micah Stock), an equally out-of-shape gay father who joined, he says, because he started to hyperventilate during the sack race at his son’s preschool.
More or less on a whim, this unlikely trio decides to train for the New York Marathon, an event so elite that even getting permission to enter is difficult.
Given this set-up, you might think you could guess the rest of Brittany’s story, but the magical thing about this film is that you really cannot. The people she meets and the way things play out for her are not what you would suspect.
For one thing, a random job as a housesitter-dogwalker connects her to the arrogant, aimless Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), nobody’s idea of a person you want to hang out with.
More to the point, Brittany’s obstacles do not fade away even as she sheds pounds, and unlooked-for issues of intimacy, trust and belief in self come to the fore.
With her great spirit, self-awareness and sense of humor, Brittany is a remarkable person. Her battle is not so much to lose weight as to take control of her life, and “Brittany Runs a Marathon” ensures that we’re rooting for her every step of the way.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles