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Review: 'Brittany Runs a Marathon' is an exercise in layered, entertaining storytelling, and creates a star out of Jillian Bell

Paul Downs Colaizzo is a name you'll want to keep your eye on after a successful feature debut.
Credit: Courtesy / Amazon Studios

Calling your movie something as austere and stick-figure-drawing plain as “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is a risky bet. If it’s forgettable, it can be easy to imagine how an ostensible inattentiveness was paid to something meant to most immediately grab our attention as moviegoers who have precious time to budget for movie-going. 

That scenario is for naught in this case. The combined efforts of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo and an unexpectedly layered performance from Jillian Bell makes “Brittany Runs a Marathon” not only memorable, but one of the year’s most resonant crowd-pleaser movies—a story that’s worth its weight in generational angst while never limiting its narrative to the millennial spirit that makes up its core. 

Colaizzo’s feature debut is one of the softest Rs in recent memory – there’s a few whispered expletives and a sex scene that’s yawn-worthy in the age of “Euphoria” – but, ironically, the MPAA’s stamp feels like a credence to the capital-A Adult themes that it so deftly and entertainingly explores.

As Brittany, Bell is multi-faceted and uber-focused in any given scene. As someone with a natural charisma and the underdog status of a 20-something heroically trying to maneuver living in 2010s New York City with no clear plan, Brittany is easy to root for; she cracks jokes to avoid being told by her boss that she needs to get her act together, and also in the doctor’s office during a not-so-sneaky attempt to win an Adderall subscription, that all-magical elixir she expects can fix all her problems.  

But Brittany isn’t totally oblivious to the real issues. Colaizzo writes the character in such a way that she knows the odds are stacked against her – and that she knows she's the one stacking them – and Bell ably manifests that attitude in the subtle disappointment on her face after she misses the subway morning after morning. It’s probably the most forgiving of her daily defeats, but the daily struggle is wearing her down nonetheless. #same

That strong setup on the part of “Brittany Runs a Marathon’s” screenplay makes it all the more effective when her doctor confirms that her lifestyle choices – partying every night, sleeping for 15 hours every day – are having a very real effect on her health.

Brittany doesn’t respond as someone content with lazy-ing herself to death. She clearly believes she’s worthy of pushing herself to do bigger things, and we come to learn that isn’t just starting to run—although running does come to be an apt symbol for the growth she strives for, beyond the obvious, unassuming nature the title of “Brittany Runs a Marathon” suggests. In the whole story’s context, even its unassumingness holds meaning.

Over the course of a movie that is equal parts very funny and devastatingly sincere, we meet other characters with varying levels of involvement in the overall story. Perhaps most important to the movie's encouraging us to examine our tendency to misjudge the hardships of others we don’t actually know is Michaela Watkins’s across-the-hall neighbor, Catherine. On a surface level, Brittany is running to get to a healthy weight, and her reaction at wondering what the comparably-thin Catherine possibly feels like she needs to run away from is a scene that adds several shades to her (very relatable) faults as a person. 

Colaizzo’s screenplay is effectively utilitarian in that way. The central activity of running – which has its own kind of special sanctity – makes for great laughs (“Why the hell’d you do that, was somebody chasing you?” is the response Brittany’s brother-in-law has to her new hobby), but also allegory for deep introspection. Going out for a run is the great equalizer of an activity, with no one to stop you except for you, and a marathon is the ultimate expression of completing an epic feat on your own terms. 

But not everything in life works out so simply, and the genuine, human ways Brittany learns that it’s OK to accept the support of others is the grand achievement of Colaizzo’s first movie, which is ultimately more character-focused than you're likely expecting. Just as there’s no rest while training to run 26.2 miles, there’s no rest in an increasingly fast-moving world, either…but the jolt those around provide can make all the difference.

Brittany can come frustratingly close to avoiding that lesson at all costs; stubborn to a fault, even. But I think that’s part of the movie’s point. I admire that, for all its candy-colored quirks, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is slightly nihilistic. It doesn’t pander to suggest that your problems don’t shed with the pounds you run off or the obstacles you overcome. 

Usually, the reward is a whole host of other issues, a higher distance you must run to feel satisfied, even as your legs feel more and more like jelly. “You don’t have to win; you just have to finish it,” Brittany is told when initially scoffing at the idea of running a marathon. We don’t necessarily need to have the best life; just the best possible one we can create for ourselves.

I can’t imagine the film’s final moments not resonating with anybody who bears witness. If Colaizzo’s direction ever threatens to run out of breath, it’s at the start of its final act as Brittany learns some hard truths the movie was clearly always building up to. But how the movie shows her responding in its final 10 or so minutes is buoyant, emotional and supremely satisfying, and Bell runs it out with the confidence and guise of a true-blue breakout star. It brought to mind the ending of Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” – another tale of a youngish girl finding her way in the Big Apple – albeit this time with fanfare and fireworks.

You can make the case that some of the most impactful moments in “Brittany Runs a Marathon” has nothing to do with Brittany running or marathons. But there’s a universality to the concept of starting a journey just by going down the block, as well as contending with how difficult the homestretch of any endeavor can and will be. 

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