Run Fatboy Run

(2008) ** 1/2 Pg
101 min. Picturehouse. Director: David Schwimmer. Cast: Simon Pegg, Hank Azaria, Thandie Newton, Ameet Chana, Dylan Moran.

One movie's deadly mass of clichés can be another movie's sandbox full of toys. Perhaps that attitude makes this critic—ever suspicious of the old hat—a bit hypocritical. But I'd contend that, when it comes to comedy, it's less about what you say and more about how you say it. Run Fatboy Run has a determinedly creaky plot about an underdog contending with daunting odds to prove himself as a man and steal back the heart of his former love. But this odd little project, a British rom com directed by American David Schwimmer, runs on a constant tension between those shameless romantic-comedy conventions and left-of-center tweaks, the latter courtesy of a script by Michael Ian Black (The State) that's been polished by leading man Simon Pegg.

The conventions win by a nose, but Anglophiles won't mind so much as they enjoy Pegg's impeccable seriocomic performance and peppy supporting turns from Thandie Newton, Hank Azaria, and Dylan Moran. Run Fatboy Run may be patently unrealistic in every way, but like so many dopey comedies before it, it's as intuitively likeable as the sad-sack striver at its center.

Sick of being a "nearly man" and determined to win the respect of the ex-girlfriend he left (pregnant, no less) at the altar, British slacker Dennis (Pegg) commits to run a London marathon. His ex Libby (Newton) can't quite wrap her head around it, explaining that running the race won't change anything (his answer? "I'd settle for your respect"). The marathon, a bragging right of Libby's new alpha-male boyfriend Whit (Azaria), symbolizes the life achievement that has thus far eluded Dennis, a security guard at a woman's clothing store. Also a symbol: Dennis's gut weight, the leaden sense of unfulfillment keeping him from social climbing. "I'm not fat," he insists. "I'm just unfit."

Audiences will have a hard time swallowing why the not particularly smart, capable, responsible or driven Dennis would run away from marriage with Libby, who's so obviously wonderful. Gender-switching the headline memory of 2005's "runaway bride" helps a bit, but happily the screenplay doesn't insist we take it on faith; eventually it doles out a psychological answer that somehow makes the pathetic Dennis yet more loveable. The old comic heroes—Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keatons—knew what they wanted, and were tantalizingly more capable than anyone noticed; more than anything, society held them back. These days, movie men are their own worst enemies, needing a shot of self-confidence to make it happen.

With only three weeks to turn a life around, help comes from Dennis' surprisingly supportive Indian landlord Mr. Ghoshdashtidar (Harish Patel) and Dennis' best friend, Libby's dissolute cousin Gordon (Dylan Moran of the Britcom Black Books). Gordon's an inveterate gambler, and his all-in wager on Dennis to complete the charity marathon provides a strong incentive to play coach along with Mr. G. Meanwhile, regular visits with son Jake (Matthew Fenton) mean Dennis must tolerate Whit and his needling passive aggression. Pointing out drinker and smoker Dennis lacks "discipline and perseverance," Whit warns he's more likely to hit what runners call "the wall" than reach the finish line.

The home stretch disappointingly turns Azaria's swell-headed but stand-up guy into a lout, the better to sell a formulaic climax. But the performers are never letdowns. In particular, Moran and Pegg—who previously co-starred in Shaun of the Dead—nail every line, funny face, and physical gag (and any movie with a cameo by Stephen Merchant gets instant comedy cred). This brand of unfailing comic timing and expressive physicality is rare, and it's why Pegg, in particular, is a star.

Director Schwimmmer guides with a steady hand until the laughs dry up in the last act, only to be replaced by cutesy callbacks and sentimental melodrama. Still, even at its least convincing, Run Fatboy Run succeeds in putting over its central analogy of life as a run. Come for the squirmy bodily humor, stay for the profundity.

[For Groucho's interview with David Schwimmer, click here.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1

Street date: 9/23/2008

Distributor: New Line Home Entertainment

Happily, New Line gives Run Fatboy Run a run for your money on Blu-ray as well as DVD. The Blu-ray transfer offers more detail and depth than can DVD, so the Blu-ray disc "wins" by default. However, the pumped-up colors and bright contrast of this transfer seem to exaggerate the effect I remember from the film's theatrical presentation (perhaps the projectors were just running at low illumination?). One sign that something may be amiss is Simon Pegg's observation on the commentary track that his hair color appears (inaccurately) "ginger"; so too does his face. Though skin tones are unflatteringly unnatural and the visuals can be harshly colorful, these effects are at least partly (if not entirely) owed to the film's post-production strategy to deliver a bright and colorful comedy; again, this is the best way to see the film on home video, so fans shouldn't hesitate to take the plunge. Certainly there can be no complaint about the definitive audio presentation in DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio.

The nifty special edition includes the aforementioned commentary with Pegg, director David Schwimmer, Thandie Newton, and Pegg's mother. Though the inclusion of Pegg's mother is touted on the packaging, her comments are exceedingly rare and heard "off-mike" in the background. That said, the track is still an engaging listen, as the stars and director keep up a fairly even pace in delivering factoids and anecdotes on actors, locations, difficult shooting conditions, and the scripts' development. They also note the slight editing differences between the American cut of the film (presented here) and the British cut.

Next we get a very welcome selection of Deleted Scenes (7:20 with "Play All") with optional director's commentary (sadly, Schwimmer has nothing of interest to add here). An "Outtakes" reel (6:47) intersperses alternate takes and highlights from the film with entertaining footage of the actors cutting up. Along similar lines, "Goof" (2:54) is a "real time" look at Pegg becoming the butt of one of Newton's pranks as he awaits a TV interview. Last up are the "Domestic Theatrical Trailer" (2:22) and "International Theatrical Trailer" (2:37). Included on a second disc is a Digital Copy of the film. British comedy fans can proceed without caution and add this offbeat entry to their collections.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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