It’s about time Jillian Bell led her own film. The comedian and actress has added her manic comic energy to Workaholics, as well as created and starred in the short-lived Idiotsitter on Comedy Central, but Brittany Runs a Marathon is the first showcase of the depth of her acting abilities. It turns out that she’s able to pull from a well of emotion in addition to her already-demonstrated comic skills. Unfortunately, Brittany Runs a Marathon doesn’t have much going for it beyond Bell’s performance. It’s pleasant and charming, but not much else.
Bell stars as Brittany, whose life is in a state of upheaval. She spends most of her nights partying, and can barely make it to her job as an usher at a theater. She shares an apartment with an Instagram influencer (Alice Lee) whose videos with her boyfriend are insufferable. When Brittany goes to a doctor to try to score an Adderall prescription, she instead gets a lecture about her weight; however, despite initially entering a depressive spiral, she gets a vote of confidence from her fitness-focused photographer neighbor (Michaela Watkins). After joining her running group, Brittany hatches up a pie-in-the-sky plan to train for the New York City Marathon. Meanwhile, with her living situation becoming untenable, she takes a job as a house sitter in order to squat in a mini-mansion, only to find that the nighttime sitter (Utkarsh Ambudkar) is already staying there.
Bell is often hilarious as Brittany, and the screenplay — written by director Paul Downs Colaizzo — gives her plenty of room to stretch; she’s able to reach dramatic depths in the movie’s darker portions that I didn’t think were possible based on her previous work. Watkins, who is great even in the smallest of roles, is characteristically excellent, and her scenes with Bell seem to free up the younger actor to take chances.
The film falters, however, when it focuses too explicitly on Brittany’s weight loss and body positivity. There are cynical moments when Brittany Runs a Marathon seems to try to appeal to fans of those Dove ads, rather than crafting a fully fleshed-out story. Unfortunately, it’s likely to work. My Sundance screening was filled with viewers who left saying it was the best thing they’d seen at the festival. There’s also a misjudged choice to have Brittany decide to just be friends with one of her earlier love interests. In theory, it’s an interesting idea and a nice reversal of the usual romantic comedy tropes, but as it’s done here, the choice seems more like a way to simplify a film running up against a contractually obligated end time. There are still plenty of joys to Brittany Runs a Marathon, but hopefully the film will unlock bigger and better projects for Bell.