“Britney Runs a Marathon” has almost all it needs to be a success. Sure, stories like this have been told before and stories like this will be told again. But the cast, led by Jillian Bell (“22 Jump Street”) as Britney, breathes life into the cookie-cutter characters, melodramatic dialogue and stale, situational comedy set in New York. There’s certainly laughs to be had as Britney decides to change her life by running the New York Marathon. “Britney Runs a Marathon” works best when Bell and the cast embrace genre tropes like self-love and the value of friendship and just have fun with it. The problem with “Britney Runs a Marathon” isn’t its familiarity — the problem is its ambition.
The film attempts to tackle issues like body image, mental health, substance abuse and social media culture all at the same time. It does so in a serious way, without levity or satire. There is such an influx of topics, though, that any sort of depth is impossible; each is more like a plot device than meaningful content. Even Britney’s body image struggle, the driving force of the story, is half-baked. Britney’s entire character arc depends on her desire to change her BMI. They had to get it right, yet the movie falls flat on its face.
The story begins with a doctor telling Britney she should lose weight. Britney rejects this, saying that all body types are beautiful. This a valid point, but Britney discards it in the very next scene, when she has an unprompted breakdown and suddenly begins running.
The editing tries to salvage things, supplying reasons for the epiphany. The film cuts to an unhappy Britney, drowning in snacks and alcohol. It appears Britney is both fighting being overweight and substance abuse issues simultaneously by going on a run. The plot backs this viewpoint up. As Britney sheds the pounds, her alcoholism simply disappears. No need for counseling or rehab. It’s just that easy.
Problematic implications aside, editing cannot be the only source of character motivation. Too much is left up to the viewer. It’s impossible to connect the dots as to why exactly Britney starts training for the marathon.
Britney’s victories feel hollow because the stakes are unclear. Is she doing this to look better, feel better, or something else? Near the end, a character tells Britney “it was never about your body.” She seems to agree, but that idea was neither built up to or returned to over the course of the story. The film began with the doctor telling Britney to change her BMI, and she apparently listened: It’s clearly been about her body, from the start. Also, throughout the second act, Britney is almost entirely focused on a romance subplot, which clouds things even more.
Britney’s characterization fractures further in the third act. To give the narrative some tension, Britney acts like a monster to friends, family, and strangers. The worst of it is her body shaming another woman at a dinner party, hurling lowbrow insults that wouldn’t be out of place in a middle school cafeteria. This almost destroys the film, alienating Britney for the most important stretch of the story and throwing any notion of nuanced social commentary out the window. When Britney suddenly turns back to normal, the change in personality is incorporated into her arc in a way that’s empty and detrimental to what the movie is trying to accomplish.
In the end, Britney learns to be a healthier, more independent person, but not one who isn’t too ‘cold’ to make friends. None of this is supported by the lopsided character development and lack of motivation. It all feels phony. The cluttered epiphany is never tied together, and is mostly ignored in the denouement in favor of the romance subplot.
It’s a shame, because even as the plot unravels, there are some genuinely funny scenes and moments where the performances ring with authenticity. But it’s not enough to save the script. “Britney Runs a Marathon” could be enjoyed in passing, but most likely will not be remembered.