by Patrick Bromley
If you've paid any attention to comedy in the last few years, you're probably already familiar with Jillian Bell. She broke out on the Comedy Central series Workaholics (which I have never seen) and went on to supporting roles in a number of high-profile studio comedies, including 22 Jump Street, The Night Before, Rough Night, and Fist Fight. She's the kind of comic actor filmmakers would use as a secret weapon, zooming in on her jetpack to get a couple of big laughs and then zooming back out of the movie until she was needed again. Because she always makes an impression, she runs the risk of being typecast; directors can only imagine her doing one kind of thing because it's what they've seen her done in other movies.
Let's give thanks to writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo, who understood the potential for Bell to do more than she was being given the chance to do and gives her an overdue star vehicle in Brittany Runs a Marathon, his debut feature. Bell plays Brittany, a New York City party girl nearing 30 with very little money and very little ambition. When a trip to the doctor gives her a pessimistic prognosis about her health, Brittany decides to take up running as a way of getting in shape. Little by little, she begins to transform both inside and out.
Like Saint Frances, which also played this year's Chicago Critics Film Festival, Brittany Runs a Marathon focuses on the gradual maturation of a woman seemingly in a state of arrested development. The catalyst might be different -- in Frances it's a six-year old girl, while here it's training for the New York City Marathon -- but the end results are the same. It's a familiar comic formula at this point, but what makes it unique in the case of both movies is the execution. Brittany doesn't find Bell cluelessly grappling with "adulting," nor does it clumsily use running as a heavy-handed metaphor for growth. Instead, the movie addresses self-image and body shaming in a way that's both smart and sensitive, but also expands to talk about trauma, about creating your own support system, and about how hard it can be to let people care about you when you've spent a lifetime with a guard up.
Brittany Runs a Marathon is the best kind of crowd-pleaser: one you don't have to feel bad about liking because it doesn't talk down to you. It's got a great star turn, a very funny supporting performance from Utkarsh Ambudkar, and it deals with some sensitive topics with sensitivity and honesty. It's a movie I'm happy to have win me over, and is the first of what I hope are many leading roles for Jillian Bell.