A film review by Craig J. Koban

RUN, FAT BOY, RUN jj

2008, PG-13, 100 mins.

Simon Pegg: Dennis /  Thandie Newton: Libby / Hank Azaria: Whit / Dylan Moran: Gordon / Matthew Fenton: Jake / Haris Patel: Mr. Ghoshdashidar 

Directed by David Schwimmer / Written by Michael Ian Black and Pegg

RUN, FAT BOY, RUN is a comedy stranded between three awkward hemispheres: it tries to be a romantic, love conquers all story, a cunning and sardonic British farce, and a sentimental underdog melodrama.  All of these elements are here, but only a few are handled with any reasonable competency.  This is not surprising considering the people in front of and behind the camera:  We have Simon Pegg, a jolly and ferociously funny on-screen charlatan, Chicago-born Michael Ian Black, who co-wrote the screenplay with Pegg, and, yes, Ross from TV’s FRIENDS, David Schwimmer, helming the film in his directorial debut.  

On paper, a Queens-born actor turned director seems like the least likely person to helm a British comedy of manners…and for the most part...it shows.  Schwimmer is a real life close friend of Pegg’s, so maybe the two felt that pairing together would be a good idea.  Unfortunately, Schwimmer’s filmmaking virginity shows as RUN, FAT BOY, RUN is awash with a sitcom level of heavy handed sentimentality sandwiched in-between awkwardly forced sight gags and pratfalls.  There are individual comic moments that are stiff and lifeless alongside some that are strained.  Schwimmer also seems to have no idea what tone he is attempting here:  Scenes of would-be heart-warming emotion and drama are integrated haphazardly with scenes of gross out gags, weird physical comedy, and scathing dialogue.  If anything, RUN, FAT BOY, RUN lacks cohesion.  

Yet, perhaps the source of the film’s greatest asset is also its source of greatest weakness.  Simon Pegg’s screenplay seems like such an illogical progression from his uproarious and sharply played satires (SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ, which effectively and gleefully mocked the conventions of the zombie and cop/buddy action flick respectively).  In RUN, FAT BOY, RUN his co-authored script plays it annoyingly safe and feels like a straightforward, dime-a-dozen, romantic comedy with every readily foreseeable cliché and plot development.  The script is a cookie-cutter exercise in formulaic storytelling, right down to the loser with a heart of gold, the woman he desperately wants to re-connect with, and the dastardly man in this woman’s life that he will eventually come head-to-head with.  Oh, and we get an irrepressibly cut child with an adorably English accent and missing front teeth that is tacked on for exasperatingly saccharine effect.  

Does Pegg’s participation as actor and writer in this film label him as a sell-out?  Not really.  There are some deliciously droll moments here and there, but all of the acerbic banter that has typified his past comedies seems utterly suffocated by RUN, FAT BOY, RUN’s bland, inconsequential, and forgettably mechanical story.  Watching this film after seeing Pegg's last two is odd, seeing as this comedy could have worked so much better if it chastised the conventions of all of those dumb and lifeless Hollywood romantic comedies.  Instead, RUN, FAT BOY, RUN essentially wants to be just another one of those pedestrian Hollywood romantic comedies.  Fans of Pegg’s work, as a result, will be set up for disappointment.  Just imagine what could have resulted with a radical re-write, normal Pegg co-star Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright along for the ride.  Alas, contrivances riddle this film, not comic inspiration and wit, as it shies away from being scathing and cynical and instead is a bare bones, feel-good comedy.   

Boring.  

The film opens five years in the past as we see the wedding day of Dennis (Pegg) and Libby (Thandie Newton, doing what she can with a weakly and lazily written character).  Dennis is having severe pre-nuptial jitters, panics, and abandons his bride-to-be - whom is with child - at the altar.  We then flash forward to the present and we learn that Libby and Dennis are no longer together, but she did bare his child in Jake (Matthew Fenton) and – gasp! – she has a new boyfriend in the affluent and handsome Whit (Hank Azaria, whose usual comic gifts are all but subverted here).  Predictably, Dennis grows ambivalent about Whit and realizes that Libby is the only woman he wants to be with.  The problem is that she resents being dumped on her wedding day (what woman wouldn’t?) and Whit is now around, who seems perfect in every way in her eyes.   

Whit later reveals to Dennis that he is to run in a charity marathon in London and, in a desperate attempt to reconnect with his wife and to regain his much-needed self-respect, Dennis also agrees to participate.  His main problem is that he is horribly out of shape and in no way looks capable of running a long-distance marathon.  Yet, he is coached on and assisted by his best friend, Gordon (Dylan Moran, one of the film’s comic high points) and his own landlord, Mr. Ghoshdashidar (Harris Patel) who helps to motivate Dennis by spanking his bottom with a spatula while running.  

This film is bathed in nauseatingly cobbled together conventions, which only helps to accentuate the blandness and triviality of the story.  Most of the secondary characters never feel plausible as real life personas.  Newton’s wife character feels like she’s on autopilot that makes every single decision at the service of the screenplay.  Perhaps the biggest casualty of the film is Hank Azaria’s boyfriend, whom initially comes across as a nice, affable, well meaning and intentioned suitor to Libby.  At first, this is an interesting angle seeing as it provides a real test for Dennis (trying to retake his old girlfriend from another reputable and decent man would have given the story more conflict), but as the script chugs from one methodical point to another, it frustratingly and abruptly alters Whit into a iron clad SOB, which rings kind of false.  This character's turn from nice guy to lecherous heel never feels legitimate or plausible.

The script shamefully takes great pains to make Whit a loser and jerk whenever its convenient, which allows Libby to change allegiances.  Two moments in particular feel artificial: The first when Whit tries to sabotage the marathon for Dennis and a later scene where he berates his cute kid – in front of Libby – with hurtful vulgarities.  Cue shocked reaction from Libby.  Cue her quickly rejecting Dennis.  Cue Libby and that adorable kid to the finish line to assist Dennis with love and moral support.  And then there is the ROCKY-esque underdog aspect of Dennis’ final run towards the finish line that anyone with a sound mind could see from a mile away.

RUN, FAT BOY, RUN may be glaringly prosaic, but the film does score a few high comic moments, in part because of Pegg, who manages to cut through the film’s predictability with some refreshingly offbeat and incendiary lines (his response to a reporter asking how he is feeling while running the last leg of the marathon is perfectly played).  He performs some of the film’s physical comedy with a daft touch (although one moment with a department store mannequin seems like a rejected outtake from MR. BEAN).  One cheeky scene occurs when he goes out for his first run in what appears to be a sinfully undersized pair of running shorts, which eventually gives him a rash in what he calls the "scrotal region."

Yet, the film is almost stolen from Pegg by Dylan Moran’s insidiously hilarious dead panned delivery and one-liners.  Some passages are unmitigated zingers, like when Dennis asks him if there is any special technique to running, to which he dryly responds. "Well...yeah...you put one leg in front of the other, over and over again really, really fast!"  There is another nail biting moment where Gordon tries to sell Dennis tickets to an outdated show: Dennis asks him, "Who would buy tickets for an event which happened yesterday," to which he replies, "Uh...time travelers."  And then there is a Farrelly Brothers moment that involves a gigantic, apple-sized blister on Dennis' foot as Gordon attempts to puncture it with a needle.  The end result is more disgusting than funny, but Gordon's shocked response to it is a knee-slapper: He utters the film's single funniest line: "That's the second-most disgusting fluid I have ever had in my eye!"

Nonetheless, all of Pegg’s and Moran’s comic inspiration can’t help overcome RUN, FAT BOY, RUN’s imbecilic, bland, and flaccid story, which careens from one regurgitated and predestined plot point to the next.  The film has a good heart and is amiable, but too many films like this have preceded it, not to mention that Pegg is far, far too intelligent and gifted as a comic mastermind to trudge through this regrettably hackneyed film.  Ultimately, while leaving the theatre after seeing RUN, FAT BOY, RUN I felt that Pegg made the kind of film that he would have lambasted and ridiculed to giddy effect under different circumstances.  Unfortunately, instead of him scorning this type of material – which would have been so much more satisfying – he gets hijacked within it.    

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