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Finishes the Race

Michaela Watkins
Michaela Watkins
Amazon Studios
 104 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByPaul Downs Colaizzo
Starring: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins
Brittany Runs a Marathon

Weekend golfers don’t get to take the course with the pros in the Masters, and country club hackers don’t wind up at Wimbledon. But at a lot of prestigious distance running events like the New York City Marathon, ordinary joggers get to try their luck surviving a 26-mile course right alongside (although, in fairness, usually a few hours behind) the world’s elite. For those amateurs, the glory isn’t in winning; it’s just in finishing, and the competition isn’t against others; it’s against their own bodies. Rarely has that point been made more clearly than in the insightful and ultimately uplifting independent film, Brittany Runs a Marathon. 


The titular Brittany (Jillian Bell) is Brittany Folger, a late-20s New Yorker who is rapidly approaching 200 pounds in weight and zero in self-esteem. She’s stuck in a low-paying job running the concession stand at an off-off-off Broadway theater, and she spends her nights getting drunk in bars and occasionally accepting propositions from strange men to go into the restroom and get on her knees. Her only friend of sorts is her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee), who tolerates Brittany as a fat wingwoman who makes Gretchen look better in comparison. 


Brittany eventually hits rock bottom when her trip to a doctor to score an Adderall prescription turns, instead, into a weight loss and fitness lecture. Since she can’t afford the ridiculous prices the fitness center wants to charge, she eventually turns to running, not wholeheartedly, but in little bits and pieces. Her upstairs neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins), who previously was the butt of Brittany’s putdowns, convinces Brittany to try to join a running club. There she meets another slowpoke, Seth (Micah Stock), a gay father wanting to improve his fitness to impress his kids. Brittany, Seth, and Catherine become training partners and friends and eventually decide to enter the New York City Marathon. 


To do so, Brittany realizes that she will probably need to raise money for charity, so she takes a second job as a house sitter for a wealthy couple who are out of the country for months. There, she meets her fellow house sitter Jurn (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a slacker who is actually crashing in the house, having no place of his own. The two rather predictably clash at first but eventually wind up in bed together in a relationship that may or may not be a friendship or romance.


Based on the film’s title, most viewers will be able to guess how Brittany Runs a Marathon is going to end, and, truth be told, the basic storyline is just a variant on a lot of lovable sports loser films over the years like Cool Runnings. But while those movies typically follow a relentless uphill arc from whenever the inevitable turning point occurs, Brittany Runs a Marathon is a far more complex and realistic movie. The film was written and directed by playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, who based the character of Brittany loosely on his own roommate, who similarly turned to running in the face of some emotional difficulties. In the hand of Colaizzo and Jillian Bell, Brittany is not simply a stereotypical zero-to-hero; she’s a likable but extremely flawed character whose insecurities and bullheadedness threaten to derail her progress over and over.


I confess that I’ve never been much of a fan of Jillian Bell, whom I’ve generally thought of as a B-list Amy Schumer. But Brittany Runs a Marathon is a real eye-opener, an acting tour de force that takes Brittany through the emotional wringer. And, in real life as in the film, Bell threw herself into the role, losing some 40 pounds before and during the shoot. Thus, although there was some use of makeup and a body double, viewers can see Bell get demonstrably slimmer as Brittany’s scale clicks off the pounds. And, as the pounds come off (and occasionally back on), Bell puts the entire menu of Brittany’s insecurities, neuroses, and self-destructive behavior on display.


Bell is excellent in numerous scenes, but two, in particular, stand out. The first time she goes running, she barely musters the courage to go outside the front door of her apartment. Then, as she takes her first tentative steps, she gets distracted by the food cart vendor at the corner, and the audience can see her going through the mental calculations of whether to keep going or just get a snack. Later in the movie, Bell has an even more emotionally devastating scene in which she is attending her brother’s birthday party, and an extremely overweight woman shows up. Brittany can’t restrain herself from viciously cutting down the woman, even as everyone around her reacts in shock. It’s more self-disgust than spite, which Brittany realizes soon afterward.


Scenes like the birthday party debacle indicate why Brittany Runs a Marathon is so effective as a character study. Lots of writers might put a scene like this early in the movie to show the “old” Brittany but Colaizzo, perhaps based on his own observations of his roommate, realized that character development is not a straight line (or one with a single obligatory backward step). Instead, Brittany progresses then regresses, never fully able to get over her stubborn unwillingness to accept help from anyone, even as she realizes how much she needs it. Even the use of humor in the movie helps establish Brittany’s character. Most of her “jokes” simply aren’t funny; they are pathetic displays of self-pity punctuated by an insincere smile. Later, when Bell does trot out some funny one-liners, the effect is far more noticeable.


There are times when Brittany Runs a Marathon stretches credibility a bit much, especially in the depiction of Brittany and Jurn’s housesitting arrangement. In fact, the entire character of Jurn seems an unnecessary plot contrivance to give Brittany about the most unlikely love interest possible. But when the movie sticks to the basics of Brittany and her fellow runners, it works. And, in tribute to Howard Hawks, it has several scenes that are simply great. The result is a bit of an oddity, a feel-good movie about a character who often doesn’t make the audience feel all that good about her. Brittany Runs a Marathon easily brings home the gold.

In this clip, Jillian Bell tries to con a doctor into giving her a prescription for Adderall.

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Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019) on IMDb