Wednesday 20 November 2019

Off-course: "Brittany Runs a Marathon"

Hollywood's resort to churning out distaff remakes of earlier hits (Ocean's 8 for Ocean's 11, Ghostbusters for Ghost Busters) in the absence of any better ideas has already been much discussed. Brittany Runs a Marathon, a vehicle for the generally terrific comedienne Jillian Bell, isn't a remake per se, but there are several points along its course where it feels like 2007's middling Simon Pegg starrer Run Fatboy Run is being rerun with a female protagonist. What's motivating Bell's Brittany to take up a healthier lifestyle isn't, in this case, a broken heart - though we find her mired in FOMO-suffering singledom - but a steep risk of fatty liver disease. What's holding her back: low self-esteem, several of the judgiest friends ever put before a camera, and a hard-to-shake fondness for Cheez Whiz. It's based on a true story, but we're broadly in the same messy-woman territory as 2011's landmark Bridesmaids, albeit with a film too rigidly programmatic (and which arrives too late in the day) to generate any comparable buzz: it's had the briefest of theatrical runs before being shunted onto Amazon Prime, an apparent casualty of a) a suddenly competitive marketplace and b) an inability on its own part to decide whether it wants to be filed as feelgood or funny, and to comprehend that it could, if it pushed a little harder, be both. It is mildly feelgood, charting a haphazardly upward trajectory in bright colours, and offering up the ever-edifying sight of somebody training themselves out of passivity, and to be a healthier and happier person. Brittany runs the marathon so that you and I, entrenched on the sofa with a family-size tub of Celebrations, don't have to. Ask me if the film is funny, however, and my answer would be: nowhere near often enough.

Bell has one good line as her doctor informs her she's clinically obese ("You really didn't get the point of those Dove ads, did you?") and fashions a raggedly amusing arc out of Brittany's running style, progressing from "cat lady pursued down street by demons" to something more streamlined and elegant. Yet that streamlining is part of the problem here. Around the halfway mark, I was struck by the queasy realisation that the weight-shedding process the film describes is exactly that the movies have prescribed to curvier actresses so as to get themselves out of the best-friend zone and earn lead roles in romantic comedies not a million miles from this. Brittany gets healthier and more employable, but she doesn't necessarily get any funnier. In her best screen work - that great fight scene in 22 Jump Street, her privileged homewrecker on TV's Idiotsitter - Bell skitters around at the nexus between chaotic-good and chaotic-evil: she's a livewire, a wildcard. The role of Brittany merely asks her to play identifiable, then aspirational: it's the same straitjacket of blandness Steve Carell was forced to don when he first shifted from TV to movie stardom. That the film isn't wholly committed to its comic business is evident from the understocked cast: the best director Paul Downs Colaizzo provides Bell by way of a sparring or training partner, the estimable Michaela Watkins in the role of Brittany's sensible neighbour Catherine, is really only here to demonstrate that even our sensible neighbours have things in their past to be running from. The movie, alas, simply jogs through plot point after plot point, negligible set-up after negligible set-up, not quite comedy, nowhere near substantial enough to function as drama, its hesitancy seemingly a direct consequence of a (well-meaning) male writer-director fumbling to address women's often tenuous relationship with their own bodies. (You may long for the simplicity and certainty of Melissa McCarthy shitting in a sink.) Bell remains entirely worthy of star vehicles, but they deserve to be more robust than this: she needs material she can throw around, that isn't just wrapping her in a big hug, or - worse still - outright corseting her.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Amazon Prime.

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