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Review: ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ takes Jillian Bell on compelling journey

Jillian Bell stars as Brittany, who transforms herself under doctor’s orders in “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” (Amazon Studios)
Jillian Bell stars as Brittany, who transforms herself under doctor’s orders in “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” (Amazon Studios)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

It’s not often that your best friend writes and directs their debut feature film about you, but Brittany O’Neill’s mental and physical transformation inspired her friend writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo to make “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a drama disguised as a comedy about the hard work of changing yourself.

Comedienne Jillian Bell steps into her first starring role as the funny, frumpy Brittany, a New York City party girl/slacker whose body can’t keep up with her arty all day/sleep all night routine (Bell also produced the film). Under doctor’s orders, she hits the pavement in search of salvation. And along the way, she finds herself.

The ending is right there in the title, but Colaizzo’s film leans into the old adage that it’s all about the journey, not the destination, following the achingly hard work of Brittany’s trek toward the finish line of the New York City Marathon, and, ultimately, happiness.

Brittany’s problems aren’t unusual, and they aren’t insurmountable, but they aren’t easy. She’s got a lame job, flounders in her love life, grieves the loss of her father and has high blood pressure to boot. Living with a wannabe influencer, Gretchen (Alice Lee), isn’t the best influence, either.

But for all her external problems, the highest mountain Brittany has to climb is getting over herself, a struggle Bell makes poignantly, piercingly real in her performance and that takes the film into its darkest, yet most relatable moments.

To anyone who can relate to Brittany’s predicament of feeling stuck and depressed, this might all sound familiar. She’s unable and unwilling to receive and accept help and love from her loved ones, so she wallows in her own bad thoughts and negative spirals.

During a particularly nasty relapse, while recuperating from an injury at her sister’s home, a drunk Brittany spews all her judgmental thoughts (clearly about herself) at another plus-size woman, envious that this person has decided to choose happiness and joy in her own body rather than self-hatred.

It’s an ugly moment, tough to watch, and Bell and Colaizzo don’t shy away from the darkness. Colaizzo has stacked the cast of this dramedy with gifted comedians alongside Bell, including Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Lil Rel Howery, who all bring a natural levity. But the script also offers each performer a meaty dramatic arc.

Bell demonstrates her otherwise-unknown dramatic chops, and her performance is surprising and nuanced, yet also incredibly funny when it needs to be. Cinematographer Seamus Tierney brings a handheld immediacy to the look and feel of the film, which is far more indie drama than broad comedy.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” has uneven moments, character transitions that happen too abruptly and a bafflingly strange and rather forced meet-cute for Brittany and Jern (Ambudkar), who are both working as long-term housesitters and essentially move into their employer’s home.

Nothing about it makes sense, but it’s easy to overlook the logistics when the performers are so charming and the emotional truth the script unearths ring so true. And although it is triumphant, whether Brittany runs the marathon isn’t the point. The most important step she takes isn’t over the finish line, but simply showing up to the race.

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