'Brittany Runs a Marathon' And the New Type of Transformation Tale
August 29, 2019
Rising comedic talent Jillian Bell first garnered attention for repeatedly stealing scenes in the bro-tastic sitcom Workaholics (2011-2017), which led to starring roles in major comedies like 22 Jump Street (2014), Office Christmas Party (2016) and Rough Night (2017). Now she finally has her own vehicle, the superlatively inspirational dramedy Brittany Runs a Marathon.
Written and directed by award-winning playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo, who was inspired to tell the story by events in the life of a real friend actually named Brittany, the film is the kind of character-forward story that many people complain isn't made anymore.
In her late 20s and not really looking after herself, underemployed New Yorker Brittany Forgler (Bell) goes to a doctor to try and score some Adderall, but he ends up advising her to get healthy or face the dire consequences.
Encouraged by a neighbor played by Michaela Watkins, Brittany manages to take the first step of jogging around one city block, and soon sets herself the titular goal.
Brittany Runs a Marathon brings a fresh and nuanced perspective to well-worn cinematic territory.
“I think there's been a lot of transformation tales, but there [are] none that have been quite like Brittany,” Bell said at the film's recent premiere.
“We really explore her emotional state throughout the film, which I don't think always gets highlighted. A lot of it is about the physical journey and then someone loses weight and their life is perfect. And this is the total opposite.”
Bell, who is also a producer on the film, had simple motivations for making it.
“I feel like this is the movie I wanted to watch when I was a 13-year-old girl,” she said.
“It felt like a character that I would've related to when I was younger, and I still want to see today. When I read it I just thought, ‘This is someone who's interesting.’ It's a story I've never seen before and that's why I jumped on board.”
Bell, who comes from an improv background, said the fact that the director was also the writer forced her to be disciplined on set.
“You wanna respect the words a little bit more. We didn't do as much improvising but I thought it was great because there wasn't a question I had for Paul that he didn't have the answer to. He knew every single nook and cranny.”
Colaizzo himself talked to Final Draft about how seeing the real Brittany transform herself inspired him to write this.
“It's a love letter to my best friend,” he said.
“It's a story about a woman overcoming her old self and her old habits. It's a very specific character journey that [is] resonant across real-life characters.”
Colaizzo acknowledges that far too many films define their lead female characters according to romantic status. While Brittany Runs a Marathon isn't devoid of romance, the main character's central conflict has less to do with the men in her life and more to do with how she sees herself.
“That was really the sell,” Colaizzo said.
“The way I pitched it … was a woman tries to get her shit together training for the New York City marathon. And inherent in that is no man. It's not a love story except for one with herself, and that's what the story is. It's all about the tension that happens inside of the character.”
According to Colaizzo, the project evolved considerably after the inspiration first struck him.
“If there was something in my head when I first started that was in the finished product, I'd be a bad writer. I had to follow the characters and follow the inspiration. The emotional core of what I was after is intact, and along the way it's bloomed and it's blossomed and here we are.”
The discovery process didn't finish after shooting.
“I was still discovering stuff in the edit. I discovered stuff after Sundance, I went in and reopened it and made a few changes. It's an ongoing thing and you run out of time, you run out of money, and you've made something that's ready to stand on its own two feet.”
The increasingly ubiquitous Michaela Watkins (Saturday Night Live, Casual) textures the film as a character Brittany initially misjudges.
“I play Catherine, who [Brittany] doesn't like too much,” Watkins said.
“She's her neighbor, who [Brittany] thinks is an elitist snob and like every character in this movie, she's not who you think she is. So Catherine ends up encouraging Brittany to take her first step and try running, which she does very begrudgingly. Catherine ends up being the support system that Brittany ultimately needs.”
Watkins said she believes the world needs movies like this one, which are a bit more interested in genuine emotions than most comedies.
“At first blush, it feels like a big-budget, beautiful comedy. But it goes so deep and it cuts so hard. I saw it for the first time at Sundance … I was weeping like a baby. And look, I know the movie; I shot the movie, and I still was just totally taken to my knees on it because it's just so moving and I think it's been so long since we've had something that inspirational.”
Brittany Runs a Marathon is showing in theaters.
Written by: Dominic CorryDominic Corry is a Los Angeles-based film critic, writer, journalist and broadcaster. Raised in New Zealand, he is also the West Coast editor of Letterboxd, the social network for movie lovers. For more of his film writing, see his website www.TheGoodInMovies.com