By Emily Condon
Run Fatboy Run
Dir. David Schwimmer, U.S./UK,
Simon Pegg, known primarily as that guy from Shaun of the Dead, returns as an unlikely hero in Run Fatboy Run, a cheeky romantic comedy that marks David Schwimmer’s directorial debut. The story comes courtesy of The State alum and VH1 staple Michael Ian Black— the final screenplay was a joint effort between Black and Pegg, who Brit-ified the script. The film is competently directed, diverting enough, the cast is generally charming, and it even has a handful of snigger-out-loud moments. Indeed, Schwimmer’s foray behind the camera doesn’t stray far from his most famous venture in front of it. Like Friends, Run Fatboy Run is genial, pleasant enough, occasionally funny, totally predictable, and completely conventional. It’s a trifle, a picture that itself sheds almost no insight into the relations between men and women (or, for that matter, anything else), but it is significant in one sense: it joins the ranks of an ever-growing cadre of movies—call it the lovable losers genre (see: most anything bearing the names of Judd Apatow, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Kate Hudson, et al)—that suggest that smart, successful, sexy, giving women would be infinitely better off settling for slovenly losers who can barely dress themselves, much less hold down a respectable job, than landing a man who enjoys even a scrap of success.
It’s easy to root for Pegg in the role of Dennis, a wayward slacker who in the picture’s opening sequence runs away from Libby (Thandie Newton), his very pregnant girlfriend, minutes before they’re to be married because he doesn’t think he’s good enough for her (if only loser boyfriends in real life were so altruistic). The film cuts from Dennis’s mad dash from Libby to another sprint seven years ahead—Dennis is now a lingerie shop security guard, and he’s in hot pursuit of a shoplifting drag queen. He tackles her and wrestles a piece of lingerie out of her hand, only to discover upon his return to the store that she still has the other half of the set. She reappears in the front window to yell, “Run, fatboy!” at him. Because, of course, there’s no humiliation greater than being taunted by a man dressed up like a woman. For the next hour and a half, similar hi-jinks ensue.
We soon discover that though Dennis was the one who bolted, the past several years have been kinder to Libby. Waiting for the of-course-he’s-late Dennis to pick up their son, Jake, Libby basks in the attentions of her tony new boyfriend, Whit (the seemingly ageless Hank Azaria). When Dennis and Jake hit the town only to wind up in jail, Whit and Libby arrive to pick up the pieces. Humiliated, helpless, and emasculated in front of his sexy ex, Dennis finds strange consolation in the least likely place — the suave and successful Whit. He learns that his new friend/rival is running an upcoming marathon along the River Thames, and Dennis impulsively proclaims he’s running it, too. Of course, he’s a beer swilling, fag-smoking layabout with a rotund belly and a penchant for poker, so he’s not exactly in prime condition for the race. In classic underdog movie fashion, a couple of ridiculous sidekicks enlist themselves as Dennis’s coaches and help him train—there’s Libby’s no-good cousin Gordon (the archly funny Dylan Moran, the film’s highlight) and Dennis’s overweight Indian landlord, Mr. Goshdashtidar (Harish Patel), who’s one Vishnu statue short of offensive. Dennis’s training offers a series of eye-rolling gags—Dennis has to wear a large running jersey that advertises “National Erectile Dysfunction;” Dennis gets a big blister that squirts all over Gordon’s face; etcetera.
Predictably, with each belabored step, this lunkhead with a heart of gold inches closer to a triumph of the human spirit, and learns a little something about life and love in the process. There are a few laughs along the way, and a lump might even arise in the sentimental viewer’s throat here and there. Finally, in the saccharine climax, the boy who couldn’t follow through on his wedding day sees the light and becomes a man willing to limp twenty-six miles on a broken ankle for love.
By the time Dennis’s transformation occurs, however, it’s difficult to care. The actors’ best efforts are never quite able to transcend the hackneyed script—Thandie Newton is not only gorgeous, she’s an accomplished actor, but we’re given little sense of Libby, of what makes her compelling or interesting or worth pursuing, beyond her beauty. The narrative almost completely glosses over the years between Dennis’s abandonment of Libby and the marathon-running episode, and there’s nothing to suggest that he hankered after her during that time—for all the time we spend with Dennis, we have virtually no idea what makes him tick. As far as we can tell, Dennis’s sudden urge to win Libby back is spawned only by Whit’s entry onto the scene. (For our hero, apparently, a woman worth having, must only be worth having when she belongs to someone else). Azaria, always a pro, manages to breathe some life into his role, but as written Whit is a cardboard jerk. He embodies a familiar rom-com formula: basic respectability becomes bourgeois banality, which soon devolves into outright villainy. When Whit turns into a cartoon bad-guy somewhere in the second act, the initially promising central love triangle succumbs to dull predictability.
The notion of movies serving as propaganda for the sex-starved men of the world—those who don’t fit the Cary Grant or George Clooney profile—is hardly new, but what’s troubling is that these movie men seem to offer less with each passing year. C.C. Baxter may have made spaghetti with a tennis racket in The Apartment, but he also provided Miss Kubelik an honest, stable, caring alternative to her philandering, heartless boss. Manhattan’s Isaac Davis may have been a nebbishy, narcissistic nutcase, but he could talk Proust and Bergman and he practiced personal hygiene—and he still couldn’t get the girl. In the universe of Run Fatboy Run and its brethren, however, having a spare tire and an aversion to gainful employment seems to be enough to make ladies (once they’re able to see past their own vain, materialistic, and superficial desires) swoon. There are exceptions, certainly—Adam Brooks’s Definitely Maybe pops to mind—but if the majority of male-driven romantic comedies have anything to tell us, it’s that successful women should feel downright thankful for any schlub who’s reasonably nice and has a passable sense of humor.
Then again, though the message of Run Fatboy Run is problematic and demeaning to the women of the world, it’s nothing if not timely—the spectacle of so many Hillary Clintons, Suzanne Craigs, and Silda Wall Spitzers holding their humiliated heads high next to their successful husbands’ expensive suits makes torn boxer shorts, unmade beds, and slovenly haircuts look slightly more appealing. But there must be a middle ground—there are plenty of Bud Baxters out there…you just wouldn’t know it from watching the movies.