Reel Opinions

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Run, Fatboy, Run

Anyone who walks into Run, Fatboy, Run, and expects another Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz because of the presence of its lead star, Simon Pegg, is going to be greatly disappointed. This is kinder, gentler, and undoubtably a bit more contrived material than we're used to seeing Pegg in. And yet, the film managed to work with me. I laughed quite a bit during the first half of the film, and when the laughs started to dry up during the second half, I was won over by the overall charm of the characters and the film itself. Even though I think referring to the film's star as a "fatboy" is pushing it quite severely, the movie's heart constantly seems to be in the right place.

Pegg plays Dennis, a 30-something loser who hasn't made much of his life, and works as a security guard at a womens' undergarments store. He lives alone in a shabby apartment, and spends most of his personal time arguing with his landlord (Harish Patel). We learn early on that things weren't always like this. Five years ago, Dennis was engaged to be married to the lovely Libby (Thandie Newton), who was pregnant with their child at the time. But, right before the ceremony, Dennis got scared and ran away. The wedding was called off, but he still keeps contact with Libby, and tries to spend as much time as he can with their young son, Jake (Matthew Fenton). Dennis has grown to realize the mistake he made that day, and has been trying to patch things up with his ex-fiance. Libby, on the other hand, is quite content to move on, and thinks she's found the right man with Whit (Hank Azaria), a successful businessman and athlete. Dennis is immediately threatened by this seemingly-perfect man who has walked into Libby's life, and when he finds out that Whit is planning to participate in an upcoming marathon run, Dennis becomes strongly determined to get in shape and run as well.

As the film's opening scene at the wedding informs us, Dennis is a man who has always run away from his responsibilities, and never finished what he started. The question the movie asks its audience is whether or not he can motivate himself to finish such a monumental task as running a marathon. It's a simple question, and Run, Fatboy, Run takes an appropriately light and breezy approach to it. Making his feature-length directorial debut, actor David Schwimmer finds the right tone here. There's a certain sweetness and innocence to the entire film that grew on me, even when Dennis is portrayed as far from a perfect man or father. He is lazy, irresponsible, and doesn't always make the best judgements. And yet, there was something about Pegg's performance that made me think that there is good in him, and he is fighting an internal battle between the person he is and the person he wants to be. He comes across as flawed, not terrible, so when he starts trying to better himself, I could get behind him. Disappointingly, most of the scenes of him bettering himself are reserved for music montages, but the movie does hit upon the right note during some of the later scenes when Dennis is talking with Jake, and realizes the mistakes he's made in his life up to this point.

According to behind the scenes reports, the movie was originally written by stand up comic and actor, Michael Ian Black, to be set in New York. When the script fell into Simon Pegg's hand, he retooled it, and changed the setting to London. The different writing styles of Black and Pegg do sometimes show in the film, such as when the movie dives into some inappropriately crude humor. A scene involving a giant blister on Dennis' foot after one of his runs would be more suited for an American Pie movie, rather than the sweet-natured romantic comedy this movie wants to be. Fortunately, this kind of thing doesn't happen very often, and the movie is able to mostly find a steady tone that works. There are even some quietly inventive moments, such as when Dennis hits "a wall" during his marathon run near the end, and doesn't know if he can continue. It's a simple moment, but I found it strangely inspiring. On the whole, the screenplay is pretty conventional, and I highly doubt that there's a moment the audience will not be able to see coming before the characters do. Fortunately, the cast is spirited and charming enough to carry the material throughout.

Even if this is a different kind of role for Pegg than most American audiences are used to seeing him in, he still comes across as being likable. The quiet moments that he shares both with his character's ex-fiance and son are honest and sweet, and made me think he'd be pretty good in somewhat of a more straight role than he's used to. As the main people in his life, Thandie Newton and Matthew Fenton don't have a lot to do, but they still manage to make the most of their light material every time they're on screen. The two actors who came across strongest to me, however, are Harish Patel (as the previously mentioned landlord) and Dylan Moran (who previously co-starred with Pegg in Shaun of the Dead) as Dennis' gambling-obsessed best friend. They get some of the bigger laughs in the film, and when they get behind Dennis and train him for the marathon, they create a good chemistry with each other. The closest thing to a weak link would probably be Hank Azaria, who never truly comes across as a villain except when the screenplay requires him to. He doesn't get enough screen time for us to truly hate him, and Azaria's performance is a bit too low key to get the right audience reaction the filmmakers want.

When I think back on it, Run, Fatboy, Run is a lot like the character of Dennis itself. It's flawed and doesn't always seem to do the right thing, but its likable enough that I can support it. The movie carries a tone that goes down easy, and seems to understand that it's just a simple romantic comedy that only wants to make us laugh and feel good for the 100 minutes it lasts. It succeeds thanks to its cast and for a couple of strong one-liners found throughout. If anything, this movie proves that a film doesn't need to be entirely original or groundbreaking to work. All it needs is the right amount of energy and charm, and this film has both to spare.

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