52,812 people finished the New York City Marathon last year. An additional 45,435 runners actually applied and either didn’t get accepted or didn’t finish the race. Brittany Runs a Marathon – Paul Downs Colaizzo’s directorial debut which sold to Amazon for big bucks at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – dares to ask if there’s a movie to be made out of the life story of just one of those literally thousands of people who finished the race. Luckily, the answer is yes, but mostly because Colaizzo proves himself smart enough to look beneath the obvious empowerment surface.
Backstory time: Colaizzo is a 34-year-old New York City playwright, a job title that pretty inherently requires multiple side hustles to actually make a living. One of the ways he thought he might be able to make money was as a script doctor and screenwriter. He regularly batted around movie ideas with his roommate, Brittany O’Neill, but when her quest to run the New York City Marathon ended up radically changing her life in just one year he felt the best movie idea was happening right in front of him.
Without her blessing, he started work on what would become Brittany Runs a Marathon, never truly believing, however, that it could get made. It was just one of several things he was writing, but once he showed it to Brittany and pitched it as his tribute to her and all women like her he got the ok to see if he could get it produced. Tobey Maguire’s production company quickly came aboard and helped Colaizzo sprint the movie to the finish line. (You see what I did there, but, I promise, no more race puns from this point forward.)
In the transition to the screen, Brittany O’Neill has become the largely fictionalized Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell, who lost 40 pounds to play the part), an underemployed, directionless 28-year-old content to fulfill her role as everyone’s funny, fat sidekick. An Adderall-seeking visit to a local doctor knocks her dead in her tracks, however, when she’s told she needs to lose 55 pounds.
Brittany tries to ignore this advice, arguing “all bodies are beautiful” and “didn’t you see those Dove ads?” But upon re-watching a video of her overweight, now-deceased father’s 59th Birthday party, she gets the sense that her genetic clock is ticking. So, after a false-start or two she makes the simple choice to jog to the end of the street outside her apartment. It’s an experience Colaizzo comically, but effectively presents as if the end of the block literally keeps getting further away and the number of random NYC pedestrians in Brittany’s way reaches absurd levels. (“Fucking New York!” she screams.)
Speaking as someone who used to work in public health handing out pedometers for 10,000-steps-a-day challenges and as someone who has previously gone from a similar sedentary lifestyle to deciding to run for fun, this scene – the first, painstaking run after years of criminally ignoring your legs and general health – rings as entirely authentic. The same goes for most of what follows: Brittany builds up her endurance, makes runner friends (Michael Watkins stands out the most), loses weight, grows into her own self-confidence, and even opens herself up to possibly experiencing romance for the first time in her life. Her choice to pursue a more healthy lifestyle changes both her and those around her in ways she never anticipated.
However, for as authentic as all of that might feel there is still an element here where, to borrow Brittany’s own joke, everything we’re seeing could be distilled into a 2-minute Dove ad. Tens of thousands of people go through this process every year as they train for the NYC Marathon. Many of them face far more daunting challenges and hardships than a Millennial who simply never learned how to take responsibility for herself. Why does Brittany get her own movie instead of them?
Brittany’s ordinary quality, however, is exactly the point of Brittany Runs a Marathon. There’s nothing overly cinematic about her backstory or arduous journey to the finish line, but she also has a body type that usually precludes her from being the center of attention. Beyond her weight, she is someone who, in other circumstances or if she had the money to pay for it, would be attending one of those “adulting” classes popping up around the country. Instead of turning to others to teach her how to be an adult, however, she uses the inherently goal-oriented nature of training for a marathon to completely reorient how she approaches life. She comes of age at the age of 28, and Jillian Bell – who has been long overdue for a starring role like this – injects that journey with plenty of well-earned pathos and natural charm.
Where Brittany Runs a Marathon truly proves its mettle, however, is what happens to Brittany after she’s turned that supposed corner in her life. Right around the time most scripts feel compelled to present their protagonist with new obstacles, Brittany faces some new self-inflicted hardships which force her to realize that losing weight and running a marathon doesn’t solve everything. In fact, if you obsess over it too much it can become unhealthy, a case of you simply trading one distraction/coping mechanism for another. It’s a way of putting off truly doing the hard work of improving who you are as a person and how you treat those closest to you, but because of the decades Brittany suffered thinking of herself as a fat person she’s more emotionally damaged than she realized.
This appears to be the most divisive element of the film, and I can see why. There is a definite tonal imbalance between Brittany’s more lightly entertaining and empowering first half and its darker second half. The decision to subvert genre expectations and plunge into Brittany’s self-destructive habits does ultimately add another 10-15 minutes to the run time, broadly recalling the way Judd Apatow comedies tend to run long due to their rug-pulling turns toward drama.
However, this is where Brittany Runs a Marathon most feels like it has something deeper to say about its protagonist. The path of self-improvement is not always a straight line. In one of those spell-out-the-theme-of-the-movie moments, a mentor tells Brittany, “You changing your life was never about your weight. It was about taking responsibility for yourself.” In fulfilling that message, Brittany Runs a Marathon emerges as something truly inspiring.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Every year, there are at least 50,000 people with stories to tell about how they finished the NYC Marathon. Brittany O’Neill’s story is just one of them, but in the hands of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo and star Jillian Bell it strikes a if not universal than at least highly relatable, inspiring chord. I hope more people find this movie, either right now while it’s in theaters or down the road when it hits Amazon Prime.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Brittany and her roommate play a game of Uno, and it feels like neither of the actresses or anyone on set had ever actually played Uno. To be fair, that might actually be the point, an unspoken joke about the two party goals not even really knowing how to play cards.
- Bell notably lost a lot of weight for the movie, but she actually went further with it than the production had anticipated. She showed up many pounds lighter than they expected, which is why she spends the first 10 or so minutes in the film wearing facial prosthetics and a fatsuit for the pre-weight loss scenes. Some don’t notice the effect at all. I found it a little too obvious.
- Spoiler, I guess, but Brittany does indeed eventually run her marathon. The New York Times has a fascinating explainer about how the production pulled it off. In short, Jillian Bell, her double, and three 8-people crews actually ran portions of the 2017 New York City Marathon with the 50,000 real joggers serving as unwitting extras. It was so guerrilla filmmaking that real joggers stopped to help Bell when she had to pretend to be hurt, and when they called cut Bell had to help lug equipment on the way to the next shot.
What’s your take on Brittany Runs a Marathon? Let me know in the comments.