Over the last decade, Jillian Bell has been gradually consolidating for a breakout role and film. Not only has she performed a series of increasingly memorable side parts since first appearing in Bridesmaids, but she has enjoyed top billing in Workaholics and Idiotsitter, which she also wrote and created. During these ten years, Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson all hit the stratosphere, and all challenged – in their different ways – the idea of how women were supposed to look, act and enjoy in the biggest of big budget Hollywood films. In some ways, then, Brittany Runs a Marathon feels like a second-generation effort, a breakout film in which Bell reflects upon the legacy left to her by these comic behemoths, but also forges her own way. In that respect, Bell’s comic style has more in common with figures like Joy Nash and Aidy Bryant, partly because these two actors have also helmed their own television series with Dietland and Shrill respectively, but also because all three actors seem interested in building upon the visibility of Schumer, McCarthy and Wilson to broker a more fluid space for women between indie and mainstream sensibilities. While Brittany Runs a Marathon is a breakout film, then, it’s also a breakout film designed partly for Sundance, where it triumphed, and where it set a new standard for the manner in which unruly women are represented and celebrated on screen.
Like I Feel Pretty and Dietland, Paul Downs Colaizzo’s screenplay for Brittany Runs a Marathon situates us in a world in which physical appearance and upward mobility are directly connected. At the centre of this world is Brittany Forgler, played by Bell, who we meet in a state of extreme malaiase, spending most of her time binging and watching television in her cramped New York City apartment. While Brittany once had a promising career trajectory, she’s long since settled for a more mundane professional and personal existence, although we never find out the exact reasons why she fell back into the routine that she now inhabits. Like I Feel Pretty and Dietland, Brittany Runs a Marathon is also quite frank about singledom, and the abject ways in which singledom tends to be represented on screen, comically over-identifying with that position rather than demolishing or deconstructing it in a regular way. At times, Brittany’s diffuse existence reminded me of the opening third of The Boss, when Melissa McCarthy’s character, disgraced CEO Michelle Darnell, spends most of her time crashing, eating and watching daytime television on a former employee’s couch. In her own words, Brittany is “broke and fat,” continually subjected to platitudes from thin people about the importance of inner beauty, and the need to “put herself out there” in order to restore her self-belief.
Yet within Melissa McCarthy’s filmography, The Boss is also notable for being the first film that doesn’t depend directly on her body type, and her fat, for its main comic cache. That’s even more striking in that the film thrives on physical sequences, from the opening hip-hop number to a brownie throwdown, that in an earlier kind of film would have been comically, pointedly and “incongruously” contrasted with McCarthy’s weight and physical size. For the most part, however, no such juxtaposition occurs in The Boss, which makes it a perfect point of reference for Brittany Runs a Marathon, which isn’t interested in the ignobility of fat per se. Instead, what galls Brittany is the laziness, apathy and redundancy that is projected onto larger people, which she attempts to forestall in her own case by running the New York Marathon. No doubt, she loses some weight in the process, but the point of the Marathon, throughout the film, is always to prove that she can be large and athletic, or large and energetic, making for a script that is pro-fat, and resists stereotypes about what fat means.
In particular, that makes for a very different depiction of food than occurs in any of Schumer, McCarthy and Wilson’s films. For Brittany, food isn’t a source of fat so much as a disincentive to exercise, meaning that the film has considerably more scope to evoke the tantalising eroticism of food, and the pleasures of binge eating, without rendering Brittany totally abject in the process. In fact, Colaizzo’s screenplay often plays as a romantic comedy in which the two competing love interests are food and exercise, which isn’t to say that it leaves Brittany without sexual opportunities, but that they are peremptorily relegated to the margins of the narrative in a way that is quite novel for a narrative about a “larger” women, the demographic in American cinema most consistently presented as desperate for physical attention. On the one hand, that allows the film to beautifully capture the sublime moments just before eating junk food, and the incomparable feeling of taking the first bite of a burger, or chocolate bar, after a long and gruelling exercise regimen. At the same time, the film is equally alive to the breathless romanticism of running, and the new emotional and physical horizons opened up by the elusive and addictive runner’s high.
Both of these forms of activity – binging and running – are presented as addictions, and as complementary addictions, permitting the film to showcase the pleasures of eating without becoming grotesque, and the pleasures of running without becoming pretentious. The running scenes, in particular, are beautifully evocative, opening up a whole new cityscape in their wake, especially when they segue into Brittany’s routine, as in her daily run to the subway, suffusing even her most banal activities with the titillating endorphins of a runner’s high. At with Dietland, maps of New York abound, and New York is consistently remapped, as Brittany’s challenges to the preconceptions projected onto her as a larger woman allow her to gradually glimpse an entirely different cityscape, one revolving around upward mobility rather than a shame spiral. For that reason, Brittany Runs a Marathon often has a very 80s vibe, especially in its montage sequences, which draw upon the yuppie fascination with all the ways in which the urban landscape could be remade in their own image if they just had the vision, drive and self-belief to manifest their romantic dreams as urban reality.
Throughout this entire process, Brittany doesn’t actually lose that much weight – she just challenges the idea that she can’t be a runner, as the role is understood by classical Hollywood. For that very reason, however, the supporting chorus of motivational side characters feels a bit redundant, especially since none of these are drawn anywhere near as vividly as Brittany herself. In some ways, they feel like side characters from an earlier time, a time when the “fat girl” was herself a side character, while their parts often seem written and acted by rote, as if the crew had simply stepped in to play the roles in lieu of regular actors. If Brittany has any weakness, it’s this supporting cast – the real dead weight of the film – especially since they gradually take on the comic burden of the screenplay as well, riffing on their own comic quirks as Brittany’s character becomes more serious in her fitness ambitions, almost entirely discarding her comic overtones in the closing act of the narrative.
This process of shifting the comic burden from Bell to her supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it frees up Bell for a sublime conclusion in which she does indeed run the New York City Marathon, gathering all the romantic trajectories of the film into a – literally – breathless reconfiguration of the city around her renewed sense of herself, scored to a beautiful and plosive synth refrain. During these final scenes, it feels as if Bell and Colaizzo are reworking and reconsidering the dilemma of “fat” films in real time, especially the way they typically oscillate between aspiration and depression, while reducing both options to a comic or abject mode. As if searching for a line of flight from that bind, Brittany doesn’t quite run the whole marathon, but does also complete it, stopping briefly for a cramp before getting back into the race on the very brink of disqualifying herself by pausing for too long on the sideline. Eschewing both heroism and tragedy, Bell presents Brittany as she would any other runner, despite her body type, resisting the idea that a larger body type, or a “fat” Hollywood body, has to inflect the end of the race in any particularly emphatic way.
The utopian romanticism of these final scenes stems – ironically – from just this banal sense of Brittany being like any runner, which in turn stems from the gradual waning of her as a comic figure in the final act of the film. Coming after Schumer, McCarthy and Wilson, Bell and Colaizzo seems aware that Bell no longer has to broker her body for laughs before she can be taken seriously – or at least not to the same extent – aspiring for the kind of onscreen presence that these earlier actresses could only reach after doing the necessary rounds of pandering to the way that Hollywood initially apprehended and reacted to their bodies. In a way, this is the real aspiration of the film – to launch Bell straight into a leading role without her having to spend several features reconciling audiences to her body – and the beauty of Brittany Runs a Marathon is that it succeeds, making it her feel like an instant fixture, and as if she’s been around for years. The triumph of the marathon doesn’t come from losing weight, or even from running, but from being visible with the same banality with which most “non-fat” people are visible, which is to say that the finale of the film brokers the banality of marathon running with the splendor of Bell’s aspiration in quite a deft and remarkable way.
In the end, then, Brittany is simply visible as someone whose body type – or “body type” – doesn’t preclude them from this more banal form of visibility. As with Dietland, fat is a feminist issue, but it’s also a frank fact, as evinced in the way that the camera focuses from the outset on those parts of Bell’s body that would be normally elided or tactfully avoided in Hollywood films, but without ever deigning to frame this as a gesture of avant-garde provocation either. By the end, Brittany Runs a Marathon is less a comedy than a tremulous testimony to a form of representation that is on the verge of shifting – proof that there doesn’t have to be a ceiling for people who frankly identify as fact. Nevertheless, I did miss the comedy of the opening half hour, even if I understood why Bell seems keen to reject the idea that fat and funny are simply the same thing as well. During the first part of the film, Bell evinces such a keen wit, a such an immaculate capacity to undercut sentimentality, that I think the comedy ends up serving her project rather than pandering to the parodic version of fatness the film is so scrupulous to avoid. While I loved the gesture of Brittany Runs a Marathon, then, I do hope that Bell’s next film allows for even more of her comic voice, since blending that voice with a non-comic approach to her own body and sensibility is the hallmark of her genius, and what make this film’s best moments so brilliant and endearing.