Brittany Runs a Marathon is an original film from Amazon Studios, written and directed by Paul Downs Colaizzo, and is based on the real-life underdog story of Brittany O'Neill. Jillian Bell stars as the titular Brittany, a hard-partying woman living in NYC who is told by her doctor that due to her unhealthy lifestyle, she is (medically speaking) overweight, and needs to get her BMI and blood pressure levels down with a new diet and exercise. Now determined to drop the recommended 50 pounds from her overall weight, and unable to pay for or even think of paying for a membership at her local gym due to her lack of sufficient income, Brittany decides to take up running as a means of achieving her goals, and eventually feels confident enough in herself to set a new goal: run and complete the New York City marathon in just under one year’s time. This movie also stars Alice Lee, Michaela Watkins, Mikey Day, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Lil Rel Howery.
Amazon Studios has had its fair share of original films in the last couple of years that have been more than well-received, some even netting Oscar nominations, such as Manchester by the Sea and last year’s surprise Oscar favorite, Cold War, as well as the company’s other (somehow still underrated) feel-good 2017 comedy, The Big Sick. Suffice it to say that Amazon Studios is no stranger to making awards-level pictures, and with both The Report and The Aeronauts dropping later this year, they’re sure to keep up that game for as long as they can. However, sometimes all people want is a feel-good feature to touch their hearts for a moment or two, without having to worry about Oscar chances or whether or not to re-write their early prediction ballots for awards contention. Luckily for such people (and myself), Brittany Runs a Marathon crosses that finish line without getting too exhausted by its own self-importance.
Occasionally, Hollywood or some other streaming or video service will release a film or project initially meant to uplift people who are overweight, only for the tone-deaf nature of such projects to fall on ears that can actually tell which notes are which, and the reception for such projects is often (if not always) disastrous (one need only look to Netflix’s botched Insatiable series for proof of this). I imagine this is part of what elevates Brittany Runs a Marathon’s “nottie to hottie” narrative above the rest of the films in its camp. It’s quite clear from the outset that writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo respects how hard it can be to live as an overweight woman, even medically speaking, in a world (and especially in this country) that puts overweight women down more than they put down their AR-15s. Yes, it absolutely falls into the same category of films that consider certain women valuable only once their transformation is complete, but it doesn’t abide by the same rules of that camp; that similarity is by its thematic core only. Brittany is a fully fleshed-out character long before she decides to take up running, and it’s genuinely shocking how seldom that kind of care is given to women in “nottie to hottie” roles before the “hottie” part kicks in. It’s not entirely a perfect film, nor will Colaizzo be getting any Oscar attention for it, but the respect he shows Brittany in telling her story, and not his version of it, is something to be accounted for when considering the things the film does right.
The main thing holding all of this together is the remarkably subtle performance of lead Jillian Bell, who easily could have made Brittany another one of her comic dynamite characters such as she was in 22 Jump Street, but instead imbues her with a kind of loneliness and longing to be treated the same way other women are who don’t have the same body or body image issues (although, don’t get me wrong, Bell’s comedic skill is as perfect as it’s ever been). Her character at one point even says that one of the most heartbreaking moments for her as a young woman was when she realized that all the boys she hung out with would talk to and around her as if she was just “one of the guys,” since they would never say the sort of things they did around people who they considered “real” women. Brittany longs for someone to look at her beyond her own skin, and Bell walks this tightrope so well that you barely notice it until around the halfway point, where the films trades in its comedy drive for something a little more thoughtful and complex. This point is also where Utkarsh Ambudkar shines the most as a supporting character helping Brittany to deal with whatever problems she’s having (though to say how he comes into play might spoil the fun). He doesn’t actually get to do much more than offer a foil for Bell’s comedic chops and provide moral support, but he does it well enough to prove he can keep up with talent like Bell’s, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of him very soon.
After all the pomp and circumstance, however, the biggest thing that Brittany Runs a Marathon gets right is that the film isn’t actually about running or weight loss, or even achieving goals you’ve set for yourself. Those things are absolutely present here, but primarily as conduits to tell a more personal story about insecurity and letting people in. Brittany, throughout the film, judges many people by what she thinks they think of her, occasionally outright refusing the notion that anyone could possibly think of her in a capacity beyond what they see in front of them, which she interprets as a fat loner whose friends are only her friends out of some deranged sympathy (a notion which is, unfortunately, all too common in real life). At multiple points, she states that she doesn’t need anyone’s pity, rather than accepting that some people do genuinely just want to help her, and this insecurity is borne from not just how people treat women like her, but how she treats herself. Her disdain for pity manifests from her doubt that anyone could lover her, and yet, they do. It’s not a route I expected the film to take, but looking back on it, it almost feels inevitable that Colaizzo would explore that angle.
While Brittany Runs a Marathon might just be one of the best movies of the year, however, even the best occasionally have some flaws, and this movie’s come more from what it omits than what it includes, although I’m sure not adding much nuance or dimensionality to Bell’s party girl roommate (Alice Lee) didn’t help in that regard either. For starters, keeping up with running and keeping a proper diet within the exercise regiment that Brittany gives herself is actually really hard to do, and as inspirational as the film plays with Brittany taking control and responsibility of her life, it sort of just breezes right past the notion that not only is running hard to keep up, the diet one keeps is just as important as the exercise. In a film about bettering oneself and achieving goals of a healthier lifestyle, it feels a little irresponsible to insinuate (overtly or otherwise) that keeping a healthy diet within one’s efforts to make exercise a habit isn’t enough of a struggle to register a few minutes of screen-time.
As well, as much as the movie seems to want to dive into the struggles of Brittany’s health, it leaves a surprising amount on the cutting room floor regarding mental health. While it’s true that a proper diet and exercise can boost one’s mental health performance to a degree, there are circumstances where that won’t cut it, and while Bell’s character of Brittany doesn’t appear to actually have a mental illness, it would have been nice for the film to explore what taking care of her mental health meant in conjunction with the physical side, even as a throwaway line from her doctor’s visit. This wouldn’t bother me as much if the film didn’t also include a “I chose to be happy” moment during the third act, but the fact is, even more than the diet/habit stuff, the noticeable lack of commentary on mental health is a stain on the film’s otherwise nearly perfect finish.
Still, Brittany Runs a Marathon’s flaws aren’t anywhere near as prominent as I’ve perhaps made them out to be, and the more they sneak up on you upon thinking about the film, the more the film sneaks up on you with its charm, heart, and respect for the story it’s telling. Sure, it may be a bit formulaic and feel-good, but when done well, when has that ever been a bad thing? Jillian Bell delivers as one of the fiercest new comic talents to rise to stardom in the past few years, as well as one of the most underrated dramatic ones, and the film itself crosses the finish line as one of the best of the year. See it.
I’m giving “Brittany Runs a Marathon” a 9.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.