Fatboy runs the same old race

by Glen Baity

There’s a great series of episodes in TV’s late, brilliant “Arrested Development,” in which Charlize Theron guest stars as a mentally challenged British woman. The running joke: Because of her accent, everyone assumes she must be intelligent and nobody realizes she has the mind of a 6-year-old.

Run Fatboy Run is a little bit like that.

The film is the feature directorial debut of former “Friends” star David Schwimmer, as well as the first writing collaboration between Shaun of the Dead’s Simon Pegg and pop-culture pundit Michael Ian Black (who, surprisingly, took a long enough break from talking about the Snorks and Wacky Wall Crawlers on VH1 to pen a screenplay). The three come together to tell a reheated story about a guy who loses a girl, then performs a superhuman feat to win her back.

In this incarnation, the guy is sweaty Brit Dennis Doyle (Pegg), and in fairness to the girl, Libby, (a luminescent Thandie Newton), he doesn’t lose her as much as ditch her. At the altar. While she’s pregnant.

It’s not exactly the setup of an early John Cusack movie, but the execution surely is.

Five years later, Dennis hasn’t lived down the shame, and can’t bring himself to ask for a second chance, though he’s still madly and secretly in love. His situation deteriorates when big-headed Yankee banker Whit (Hank Azaria) shows up. A more suitable suitor through and through, he’s a rich, suave marathon runner who wants to whisk Libby and 5-year old Jake off to Chicago with him.

You see where this is going: Hoping to win his family back, Dennis (who is not fat; only, as he rightly observes, “unfit”) decides to enter an upcoming 26-miler to prove to Libby that he can commit to something. If you can’t tell where it ends up, well, you don’t watch enough movies.

Romantic comedies don’t get much more conventional than this, but Run Fatboy Run is still a frequently pleasant little picture. It’s that rarest of films that can coast almost entirely on its stars’ likeability. Pegg, who has a gift for physical comedy and excellent delivery, is great here, and he has a capable partner in Gordon (Dylan Moran), Dennis’ gambling addict of a best friend. Newton is excellent – it’s easy to imagine why a guy might run his ass off to win her respect – and Azaria turns in a slick performance as the faux-nice guy and closet control freak.

Maybe because the majority of its creative team has spent so much time in television, the film feels more like a sitcom than a feature, and like the above-referenced “Arrested Development” story arc, its writing might get more credit than it deserves because of the actors’ posh delivery. Maybe that’s my own bias, but I kept thinking Run Fatboy Run was a lot more clever than it actually is. Imagine anyone else – say, David Schwimmer or Courtney Cox – delivering these lines, however, and you can almost hear the studio audience in the background.

That’s not to say there are no genuine laughs here. There definitely are, but they don’t approach the blistering pace and creativity of Pegg’s collaborations with Edgar Wright, like last year’s incomparable Hot Fuzz.

But sometimes you don’t set out to be surprised, only entertained. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if you’re game for a film that fits like an old pair of running shoes, Fatboy is all you need. It’s one of those in which you can keep a mental checklist of what’s going to happen and when – this is where the montage sequence will go, and here’s the part where the hero gives up briefly, followed shortly by the part where the arch enemy reveals himself to be truly petty and small, and on and on. Its route might be marked off as obviously as a marathon, but Run Fatboy Run is far easier to finish.

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