Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon Studios releases the film on Friday, August 23.
It’s easy enough to picture the dramatic version of Paul Downs Colaizzo’s directorial debut, “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” which would most definitely open with a Lao Tzo quote about the journey of a thousand miles (you know the one, it’s all about starting with just one step) and it would absolutely end with a flood of tears. The greatest trick of Colaizzo’s winning comedy: it doesn’t need that cheese factor to inspire plenty of tears and cheers, because it’s got something better than overused quotes or overhyped drama. It’s got Jillian Bell.
Loosely based on the experience of one of Colaizzo’s friends, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” finally gives perpetual breakout talent Bell the chance to not only show off her prodigious comedic chops (the former “SNL” writer has never had a problem doing that, thanks to standout supporting turns in films like “Rough Night” and “22 Jump Street”), but also a refreshing dramatic streak that adds actual pathos to a special character in a special film. A lovable goofball, Brittany is a literal crowdpleaser who only seems at ease when she’s making other people laugh.
After a trip to a “cheap, nice” doctor she found on Yelp in pursuit of an Adderall prescription, Brittany must unexpectedly come to terms with some hard truths about how she’s been living. She doesn’t need drugs, she needs to eat a salad. By the time she’s sobbing alone in her apartment (something that Bell still manages to make amusing), it’s obvious that Brittany’s unhealthy choices aren’t just about her lack of exercise and love of burgers. It’s her nosy neighbor Katherine (Michaela Watkins) that helps push Brittany off her butt, preaching the gospel of “little goals” when it comes time to change your life. When Brittany gets up the courage to actually go for a run, she opts for her own little goal: she’ll run a block.
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Brittany does that, and then another block, and then another, and soon enough, she’s joining a running club and making new running pals (including both Watkins’ Katherine and Micah Stock as another New Yorker trying to make a change) and even deciding to run the New York City Marathon in a year, and yet Colaizzo isn’t interested in making this a straight-forward inspirational sports movie. There are still plenty of bad habits and some serious backsliding, and Brittany’s journey to whatever her life is going to look like next never follows some movie-ready playbook. That’s what makes her wins so satisfying, and her consistent mistakes so wrenching that audiences will likely be unable to let loose an, “oh, no, Brittany” every time she screws up.
She’s going to screw up a lot, but Colaizzo is gentle with Brittany, and Bell is generous with her. Changing your life might make for a splashy movie, but the playwright-turned-filmmaker is acutely aware that actual evolution happens incrementally, without huge proclamations. For Brittany, huffily signing up for OKCupid is the path forward, just like scouring Craigslist for potentially bad nanny gigs is, or buying a nice new sports bra. Change happens slowly, and the care with which “Brittany Runs a Marathon” approaches that very idea is central to its sticking power.
And so is Bell, of course, who ably balances both Brittany’s immense good humor and the lingering dark stuff all those jokes attempt to keep at bay. Colaizzo’s script weaves in enough detail to explain some of Brittany’s demons, but Bell sells the tough stuff too, doing more with a cautious look in the mirror and a slow smile than other performers can do with an Oscar-ready speech. Brittany is utterly charming, and she’s also totally human, a funny and flinty and real protagonist who can inspire tears and laughs from scene to scene, even minute to minute.
Colaizzo surrounds Brittany with a motley crew of new pals (and Bell with a stellar supporting cast), including “Pitch Perfect” star Utkarsh Ambudkar as an unexpected romantic foil, Lil Rel Howery as her surrogate dad, and Alice Lee as Brittany’s long-time BFF who can never quite sync up with all her big changes. The first-time filmmaker also tries his hand at the kind of touches not typically available in the theatrical space, including on-screen text and social media graphics (solid), energetic montages (excellent), and time-spanning edits that buffet the last act (imprecise).
He’s got a bright future ahead of him, and so does Bell. Next up: perhaps that Lao Tzo-inspired drama? She’d run away with that one, too.
“Brittany Runs a Marathon” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.