An out-of-shape underachiever puts on her sneakers, runs one daunting block, goes a little farther every day, and soon is training for the biggest footrace of all in the enjoyable “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” Writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo and his star Jillian Bell have created one of the year’s most winning comic heroines in the movie, opening Friday at the Embarcadero and Kabuki.
Colaizzo, a playwright making his feature-film debut, combines a sports movie with an indie inspirational story in this tale based on a friend’s real-life experience.
Bell plays Brittany, an underemployed 28-year-old New Yorker and loveable jokester. After the doctor she’s tried to con into writing her an Adderall prescription informs her that her hard-partying ways and greasy diet have made her seriously unhealthy, she starts running.
She runs one block, then more blocks, and joins a runners’ group organized by supportive neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins), whose self-discipline Brittany previously mocked.
She eats salad, loses weight and builds stamina. She becomes friends with fellow neophyte runner Seth (Micah Stock). Brittany, Catherine and Seth become running partners.
Fitness proves a struggle for Brittany, who messes up regularly. Her lifestyle change also alienates her roommate and former party companion, Gretchen (Alice Lee). Their friendship suffers. Brittany accuses Gretchen, a social-media obsessive, of treating her like a “fat sidekick.”
Romance happens, in the form of Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a slacker Brittany meets during a house-sitting gig. Jern, too, is house-sitting, but he’s also taken up residence, untidily, in the upscale home. He and Brittany cutely bond.
What matters most to Brittany, however, is running, and she sets her sights on the big one: the New York Marathon.
Few true surprises occur as Brittany experiences triumphs and setbacks, and as doubt arises regarding whether she’ll go the distance. The film’s middle portion, in which Brittany is consumed with her fitness goals, sags somewhat, lacking the comic sparkle of what’s preceded it. Sports-film cliches, too, are a problem.
But Colaizzo gets lots right, and the result is a late-summer pleaser filled with amusing human moments and genuine feeling.
Colaizzo wisely illustrates how becoming fit doesn’t eliminate unhappiness. Brittany needs to take charge of her life and stop pushing people away, her caring brother-in-law (Lil Rel Howery) correctly tells her.
Refreshingly, the film doesn’t dwell on the past traumas that may be partly responsible for Brittany’s emotional issues. Nor does it present having a boyfriend as essential to Brittany’s sense of fulfillment.
Bell’s sterling performance, in sync with Colaizzo’s direction, gives the movie a funny, relatable, sympathetic, three-dimensional protagonist.
Comically, Brittany is a hoot. It’s hard not to smile when she’s being a cutup at her part-time usher job, or trying to land a nanny position for which she’s unqualified. (Her resume states that she worked for the Bidens.)
Bell also nails the darker material — when Brittany verbally attacks an overweight minor character, for example.
Among the fine supporting cast, Ambudkar, whose Jern shares a delightful chemistry with Bell’s Brittany, deserves particular mention.
Brittany Runs a Marathon
Starring: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Micah Stock
Written and directed by: Paul Downs Colaizzo
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes