In the new comedy “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” Jillian Bell plays Brittany Forgler, a 27-year-old New Yorker who spends her nights kissing strangers, swilling booze and wallowing in self-pity. Her character is in for a rude awakening, however, when a doctor tells her that such freewheeling life choices aren’t sustainable — and could lead to self-destruction in the long term.
Filmmaker Paul Downs Colaizzo knows audiences have seen elements of Brittany on the big screen before — think Melissa McCarthy’s Megan in “Bridesmaids” and Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob in “Clerks” and “Mallrats.”
With that in mind, he saw “Brittany Runs a Marathon” as an opportunity to delve deeper into an archetypal character — in his own words, “the funny best friend, the fat sidekick, the hot mess” — and give her “a proper hero’s journey.”
“I’m really into characters that society labels as freaks in some way, and ‘unfreakifying’ them,” Colaizzo told HuffPost. “I wanted to create an atypical hero [in Jillian] — zoom in on her wants, dreams, pains and hopes — to hopefully inspire people to have empathy for people who aren’t like them.”
Though Colaizzo has an extensive theater background, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” marks his feature film debut as both director and screenwriter. His protagonist was based on a former New York roommate, Brittany O’Neill, who broke from her hard-partying ways and found physical and emotional strength in long-distance running.
The onscreen Brittany’s journey toward self-acceptance mirrors her real-life counterpart in that the New York City Marathon plays an integral role. The annual event is also a catalyst for Brittany’s newfound pals Catherine (Michaela Watkins) and Seth (Micah Stock).
Like Brittany, both characters are grappling with personal dilemmas — Catherine is on the brink of a stinging divorce, while Seth and his husband are navigating the ups and downs of newfound parenthood. Collectively, Colaizzo said, that trio of runners represents “the marathons all of us are running every day,” which is why he’s hopeful viewers with little interest in athletics will appreciate the film’s self-empowerment message.
“I didn’t want the film to be about an actual marathon. I wanted it to be about an emotional marathon, a metaphorical marathon,” he said. As for Bell, whose acting credits include “22 Jump Street” and the HBO comedy series “Eastbound & Down,” he added, “I could tell she was aching to take on this kind of role for herself.”
“Both of us had to place bets on each other if we were going to do this — I’d never directed anything, and she’d never been a dramatic lead before — and we did,” he said. “I’m really, really grateful for her.”
Both Colaizzo and Bell were adamant that the character’s evolution steer clear of “fat-shaming.” As Brittany trains, she naturally sheds some pounds, only to be confronted by a different set of personal demons when she seeks validation for the aesthetic effects of her weight loss as opposed to her healthier choices.
And while Colaizzo modeled Brittany on his former roommate, he went to lengths to incorporate his own experiences as a gay man into the film through both the protagonist and the character of Seth. Raised in a conservative Christian household, the Georgia-raised writer and director had to “unlearn a lot of the biases about being a gay man” before he could fully live as his authentic self, much as Brittany does with body image.
“There was a point when I made a distinct and very deliberate choice to stop being the funny sidekick and start being the lead in my own life,” he said. “That’s what Brittany is doing, too.”
There was a point when I made a distinct and very deliberate choice to stop being the funny sidekick and start being the lead in my own life. That’s what Brittany is doing, too.
Paul Downs Colaizzo, screenwriter and director
Early buzz on “Brittany Runs a Marathon” has been stellar. Variety said the film “deserves to be this summer’s indie breakout,” while Entertainment Weekly called it a “whip-smart comedy that manages to deliver genuinely funny uplift without swerving away from its own dark side.”
For his part, Colaizzo can afford to take accolades in stride. In “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” he’s created a character who alternately serves as both the protagonist and antagonist of her own story. As viewers observe Brittany’s story, he hopes they’re encouraged by the character to “set their own little goal,” be that a physical, emotional or professional change.
“A real triumph is when we overcome ourselves, and create new behavior in place of an old one,” he said.
“Brittany Runs a Marathon” hits theaters nationwide Aug. 23.