Mark Twain knew what he was talking about when he said: “Be yourself is about the worst advice you can give some people.” That barbed aphorism leaps immediately to mind while viewing Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Brittany Runs a Marathon, a feel-good movie on the subject of feeling bad about yourself.
Brittany (Jillian Bell, in an unstoppable performance) is a late-twentyish New York City no-career woman who’s so far up the proverbial tree she can barely see the ground. Her makeshift jobs — theater door greeter, house sitter, etc. — provide no refuge from the fact that she is five-foot-six and weighs 195, with a body mass index of 32, on a steady diet of alcohol, cigarettes, pills, and greasy foods. Her health is so awful her doctor essentially orders her to shape up or else quit living. Worst of all, Brittany’s self esteem is at rock bottom after years of putdowns by her “friends” and sexual mistreatment by bar louts. She’s so “broke and fat” she can’t even qualify to adopt a dog.
There are generally only two ways to go with this setup. Brittany is either destined to suffer forever and assume a form of quasi-religious martyrdom, à la Robert Bresson’s Mouchette from the film of the same name; or she’ll take a hard look at herself and cure her malaise by becoming the woman she’s always dreamt of being, like Cinderella. The trouble with the second denouement is that 90 percent of cinematic lonely-urban-female dilemmas turn out so sweetly it makes us want to gag.
Writer-director Colaizzo’s solution is a variation of Door Number Two, with the full knowledge that Brittany would never dream of being anything other than her lovable, sharp-witted-but-kind-hearted self. She’s on her way to something better than winning the big race. Brittany Runs a Marathon earns its warm-all-over feeling honestly, with solid gold writing and winning characterizations.
Brittany’s friends, with one or two exceptions, are social-network slaves, which doesn’t help her case in the slightest. Dashing through her life are a sympathetic neighbor (Michaela Watkins), a gay running buddy (Micah Stock), an Internet date (Peter Vack), her reassuring sister and brother-in-law (Kate Arrington and Lil Rey Howery), and, in the film’s other diamond-hard perf, her sardonic house-sitting counterpart Jern (Utkarsh Ambudka). The baddie of the piece is Brittany’s slim, hard-partying, pitiless roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee), an Instagram influencer (ugh) who mostly keeps our gal around for cruel laughs. We can’t help noticing, however, that almost all of Brittany’s true confidants come to her from outside the Internet. She meets them in person by bumping into them. TV writer-producer Colaizzo may be trying to tell us something.
Do people really talk like this? Can Brittany stay fit in the long run? And will she ever be able to actually make a living? Brittany Runs a Marathon (it’s based on a true story) does not have all the answers, nor does it wrap up her life in a nice tight package. It’s about the power of personality in facing down a crisis of confidence. What’s not to like about that?