I’m not fat, I’m unfit.
— Dennis (Simon Pegg)
Mix one part Farrelly Brothers gross-out, two parts Freddie Prinze Jr. rom-com, garnish with disappointment, and you’ve got yourself a Fatboy. Run, indeed.
First-time director David Schwimmer’s achingly formulaic film is centered on commitment-phobe Dennis Doyle (Simon Pegg). His fear is so profound, an introductory scene reveals, that he runs, sweaty-faced, from his pregnant bride Libby (Thandie Newton) on their wedding day. Five years later, Dennis finds himself competing in a marathon to win Libby back, so he might redirect his instincts to ostensibly good use. The film handles this metaphor awkwardly, assuming viewers will root for Dennis throughout, despite his general unpleasantness and Libby’s sole function as a prop in his self-improvement plot.
An unreliable weekend dad to Jake (Matthew Fenton), Dennis reveals not one redeeming quality. Fortunately, Pegg (sharing writing credit with Michael Ian Black), delivers his usual man-child charm, such that we might forgive — or at least tolerate — a certain level of forced scum-baggery. He works as a security guard at a lingerie store (the film’s cheap means to incorporate boob gags and penis anxieties), struggling to make his rent for his basement apartment, ogles girls in tight tops, smokes cigarettes, and has a beer belly to boot. Still, we understand — or feel crushed by — Dennis’ arrested development, even when he’s literally arrested while trying to score scalped tickets to Lord of the Rings: The Musical on a father-son outing.
Though Libby is repeatedly disappointed in Dennis’ carelessness, five-year-old Jake finds it rather charming. Here Run, Fatboy, Run relies on the Adam Sandler-tested tradition of immature men playing buddy-dads, as Dennis and Jake bond by throwing sticks at passers-by in the park, perched side-by-side in on a tree branch (a wistful allusion to Pegg’s Spaced glory days). Seemingly content with this parenting arrangement — all fun, no responsibility — Dennis should be happy enough. But he’s soon faced with a terrible threat to his routine, in the form of Libby’s new beau, Whit (Hank Azaria), who horns in on his territory and inspires Dennis to question his life choices.
Dennis’ contempt for Whit prompts him to action. An investment banker with prime real estate for both home and office, Whit runs marathons in his spare time because, he says, they require “discipline, passion, stamina.” Feeling defensive about his flabby physique and essential masculinity, Dennis decides to run alongside Whit in an upcoming marathon, just three weeks away. This challenge represents Dennis’ brilliant new commitment to Libby and Jake, and generates encouragement and derision from all corners of his life, as multiple bets are wagered on whether or not he will complete the marathon (one of his many vices is a back-room card game with loan sharks and thugs, where he regularly loses). Soon, it seems that everything is riding on Dennis, who, we’re reminded more than once, “never finished anything in his life,” let alone something that requires discipline, passion, etc.
The marathon is just an overblown pissing contest, a point made clear as the boys engage in repeated preliminary bouts. In a locker room at Whit’s gym, he powders his manhood in Dennis’ face, then brags about bedding Libby the night before. In order to hammer the competition home, Dennis, in need of a sponsor in order to enter the marathon, runs for Erectile Dysfunction Awareness, complete with a banana-as-limp-dick drawing on back of his shirt.
At the same time, the men are also working through predictable homoerotic business (in the locker room, Dennis appears in close-up repeatedly, gaping and trying not to gape at Whit’s member, powder flying in his face). This theme is expanded (and made trite) in Dennis’ other “relationships,” with his best friend Gordon (Dylan Moran), as well as Dennis’ East Indian landlord, Mr. Ghoshdashtidar (Harish Patel). They take up the task of coaching Dennis toward completing the marathon: as Mr. G gleefully slaps him on the bum with a spatula, Gordon, a drunken gambler type (with a predilection for showing his bare ass), invades all manner of his friend’s personal space, culminating in the popping of a bulging blister on Dennis’ foot, which spurts thick white goo all over Gordon’s face. At this point he affirms, “That’s the second most disgusting fluid that’s ever been in my eye.” Just in case we don’t get it. But we do.
Run, Fatboy, Run‘s other hetero-anxieties are manifested in Libby. A professional baker, she’s introduced as “good enough to eat,” and too often conflated with food and consumption (her shop is called “Libby’s Nice Buns”). Dennis’ trajectory, charted by his efforts to win back Libby and lose weight, takes him from apathetic, fearful, and working class to at least appreciating his ex’s embodiment of middle class refinement. Though he doesn’t seem the type to attract her sort of kind of top-shelf eye candy, she’s poised to make one bad choice after another — phobic Dennis, then self-centered Whit. She needs neither, but the film can’t imagine another option for her.