Romantic comedies are, by their very nature, saddled with two completely different sets of motion picture hurdles. First, the story needs to be quixotic, dealing with the emotional bond between two typically star-crossed individuals. If the chemistry or the charisma is not there, part of the filmic formula fails. Then there is the humor. While not needing to be outrageous or riotous, there should be a fairly consistent level of laughs. Both of these prerequisite issues come to bear when discussing the Simon Pegg vehicle Run, Fatboy, Run. Directed by ex-Friend David Schwimmer and co-written by The State‘s Michael Ian Black, what we have is an attempt to turns a sullen London slacker into a loveable determined dreamer. The movie only gets part of this right.
After leaving his pregnant fiancé at the altar, life has been tough for lingerie store security guard Dennis. He is constantly being harassed by a leggy transvestite, and his steady diet of beer, cigarettes, and take away has left him pudgy and out of shape. When he learns that his former betrothed, the lithe and nibble Libby, is now dating a new man, he sees green. When Whit, this suave American businessman starts coming between Dennis and his Lord of the Rings obsessed son Jake, he sees red. Learning that his rival is a marathon runner, our hero decides to throw his Keds into said arena as well. With help from his gambling addicted buddy Gordon, Dennis hopes to finish the race, impress Libby, and in the process, win back her heart. But Whit won’t go down without a fight - literally.
It’s hard to sum up what’s wrong with Run, Fatboy, Run. It boasts an impressive cast - Pegg, Thadie Newton, Hank Azaria, Dylan Moran - and some spirited cinematics from the noted Yank behind the camera. The script, which our UK cult comic also had a hand in, does a decent job of setting up the whole contention and challenge element while adding a few laugh out loud moments to the mix. We sympathize with Dennis, even though he’s a sod for leaving Libby like he did, and Whit comes across as both too good to be true and an easily taken down dunce. And the last act run is handled with style, even if some of the beats are as cliché as they come. So why doesn’t this film work better? Why does it appear as if, sometimes, Schwimmer is phoning it in - or worse - incapable of creating the aesthetic presence needed to make things gel?
Part of the problem is the plot. It’s hard to buy Pegg as such a coward or cad, especially since it looks like his case of cold feet turns into a raving psychosis within a matter of seconds. Next, Newton seems more sensible than to simply drop the man after her humiliation. She loves their son together, and wants nothing but the best for the boy. Helping Dennis turn his life around seems reasonable, especially since she’s got one of those unimaginably successful movie jobs (she owns a bustling bakery) that indicates a real lack of desperation. And Azaria adds very little as Whit except for suit and tie savoir fare. He’s not a compelling mate, nor does he do much except use materialism and power as a way of manipulating situations. Heck, even Moran’s betting problems seem tacked on from a different Guy Ritchie oriented effort.
Another issue is the ancillary characters. Pegg lives in the only basement flat in London run by a Bollywood poster boy. Harish Patel does his damnedest to overcome the rampant stereotyping (he has a nice scene in reminiscence of his late wife), but he’s stuck in a pile of Indian clichés as Mr. Ghoshdashtidar. Similarly, the criminal element out to get Dennis and Gordon seems stolen from the extras call for Eastern Promises. The amalgamation of accents and attitudes is occasionally off putting. Schwimmer does try to keep things light and airy, allowing times when Fatboy gets questionable to skate on by unscathed. Still, we remember the initial minor shock.
For all its faults however, this is a romantic comedy that works - if just barely. We want Newton and Pegg to get back together, to see the supposed passion they once shared. They are a smart couple. Azaria does just enough to make his villainy viable without overplaying his hand, and the wager subplot loses enough of its tacked on quality by the last 10 minutes so that it starts to actually matter. Indeed, what we wind up with is an effort that tugs at our heartstrings while we’re sitting back, scratching our often confused heads. We don’t get much of the logic or rationality here. We’re afraid to look beneath the surface to see if this entertainment emperor really has not clothes. In the end, we’re relieved to see that he’s at least outfitted in some running shoes and shorts.
Anyone coming to this film hoping to see the kind of celebrated comedic wit that made Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead such winners will definitely leave disappointed. In addition, this is not a soaring love story like those witnessed in such quasi-classics as Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally. In some ways, Run, Fatboy, Run is a post-modern generation’s interpretation of a revisionist rom-com. It does away with some of the genre’s truisms while taking embracing a few too many. It fails to be full-on funny or five hanky weepy. In the end, we get a sometimes solid, frequently uneven mixture of jokes and underplayed emotion. It’s clear that Schwimmer has a career behind the camera. Perhaps next time he should pick sounder material. Fatboy is too fragile to withstand much scrutiny.