As soon as it begins, Brittany Runs a Marathon is drenched in shame. There’s the uncomfortable gazes at one’s own body, the stench of morning breath, the frustration of missing a train because of your own laziness, the feeling of being used after a hook-up instead of enjoying oneself. The list goes on and Brittany (Jillian Bell)—established as a “mess,” as many a quirky young woman with no real prospects living in New York City are—is offered next to no depth beyond this sense of shame. You see, she’s not just a mess: she’s a fat mess.
Paul Downs Colaizzo’s script rarely diverts from this established path: she’s a mess (and more than a bit of an asshole) until she isn’t. She’s going to start running, and eventually she’s going to run the New York City Marathon. Bell is trapped within this constraint (which becomes the character’s sole motivation), trying to milk any line she can for laughs. In lieu of making her a real human being, the film leans hard on bringing up her weight constantly or having her insult someone in her vicinity. In rare flashes, the audience is allowed insight into some of Brittany’s interests and passions. The career goal she reveals of wanting to write jingles for advertising companies is a simple touch, but it rings sincere whenever the film bothers to recall it was a part of her personality.
Brief moments of humanity are all that the film allows for any of its characters though, if even that, and one actress late in the film is literally used as a prop to be yelled at about how fat she is. Characters, instead, are defined by their flaws and their proximity to helping Brittany become a better person. Two individuals who could have been mined for gold—her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee) and neighbor Catherine (Michaela Watkins)—are disappointingly left on the sidelines. One is a vapidly-drawn influencer and party girl, existing solely as a target to shoot insults at, while the other is a well-off photographer going through a divorce and custody battle, only coming back into existence when convenient to Brittany’s narrative. This is to say nothing of the gay best friend Seth (Micah Stock) who, while in a domestic relationship of his own that some will consider positive representation, serves next to no purpose in the script, nor the sparsely featured family members (including a criminally underused Lil Rel Howery) that are meant to complement Brittany’s journey.
Every beat of Brittany’s “growth” feels painfully scripted, coming across like some pop-psych self-help book about how we treat others the way we treat ourselves. Tying this idea of self-awareness, of self-love particularly, into the mere idea of being a decent human being, is baffling at best and dangerous at worst. Perhaps unintentionally, Brittany Runs a Marathon’s narrative arc implies that self-loathing breeds outright hostility towards others at every single moment. It peddles feel-good bullshit about managing to run a marathon, pretending all bodies are beautiful, but there isn’t a single instance where Brittany is allowed to be a happy, functioning human being in a body that hasn’t shed a Siberian Husky’s weight.
It’d be one thing if it was only Colaizzo’s script that lacked power, but there’s nothing exciting present visually either. The director wears himself thin trying to create an ensemble piece around Brittany’s friends and family that never quite comes together. Her romantic encounters are the closest he comes to creating something interesting—the back-and-forth between Brittany and Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) hews closely to rom-com beats, and her date with Ryan (Peter Vack) offers the potential for a glimpse into dating after a major lifestyle change. But the film takes the easy way out both times. The former is frequently reduced to a joke, while the latter (who was wonderfully featured in one of my favorite short films of the year) is restricted to a scene that feels like the director is more interested in reveling in the awkwardness of Brittany’s love life than actually dissecting her issues with intimacy.
And intimacy should be at the core of Brittany’s journey. Brittany Runs a Marathon takes the easy way out by always sidestepping interiority for the sake of loud statements about self-love that ring false. Featuring a Lizzo song (“Good as Hell”) does not give any insight to how your character is actually feeling about her body. Neither do shots of a scale that signal how much weight she’s lost. These are surface-level observations about a fat character and Colaizzo never dives deeper than that. The audience may cheer as Brittany loses weight runs that marathon (and both the filmmaking and the narrative beats that the marathon itself features are incredibly lackluster), but are they only cheering because that’s what these beats have conditioned them to do?
We’re meant to applaud characters for achieving their goals when they’re designed as “good people,” but Brittany is designed as an asshole more often than not. A ten-minute redemption arc after over an hour of genuinely shitty behavior calls to mind the kind of accusations lobbed against Frances Ha: she’s an inconsiderate mess making reckless decisions and comes across as incredibly annoying because of it. It’s a common enough approach to depicting women in modern independent filmmaking, but where Frances’s growth felt natural, Brittany’s is sort of haphazardly included down the road once she’s done being enough of a bitch.
Both approaches to other people are borne out of insecurity, but Greta Gerwig’s scripted charms (combined with her performance) do much to leaven any frustrations with her character, where Colaizzo tries to find every excuse possible for why Brittany is the way she is. Gerwig and Noah Baumbach also acknowledge that growth is a life-long process and the little steps (getting an apartment, finding a stable job) are just as groundbreaking as having your life together. Brittany Runs a Marathon lets her have a picture-perfect life as soon as her weight issues are out of the way (an astoundingly reductive way of looking at weight gain/loss) and trades in sincerity for jokes. While one could argue that the film is only mirroring the character’s defense mechanism, Colaizzo never bothers to approach that concept in any meaningful way. What we’re left with is uplifting nonsense for the kind of people who have never had to exist inside of a fat body, and God, is it exhausting.
Directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo; written by Paul Downs Colaizzo; starring Jillian Bell, Micah Stock, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Alice Lee, and Peter Vack; 104 minutes.