March 20, 2008

Run Fatboy Run

Run Fatboy Run isn't the best entry into the hottie-falls-for-nottie genre, but it is among the most affirming. The titular fat boy, Dennis, is an absolute hopeless failure at life. But refreshingly, the movie takes the time to show why an intelligent beauty like Thandie Newton's character, Libby, could be attracted to him. And when a dashing new man sweeps Dennis aside, the movie studiously hints at flaws beneath his spotless veneer long before the plot demands it. The new man, Whit, attracts Libby because he is the exact opposite of the Dennis. While the new beau brings some considerable qualities to the table that Dennis lacks — among them success, class, ambition, and a stable financial situation — he lacks in areas that are less celebrated but ultimately more essential.

The movie opens with Dennis having a panic attack before his wedding. The looming responsibilities of a lifetime with the very pregnant Libby have become too much. So he flees through a window. The title card blazes across the screen as Dennis turns the corner, yelling back a very earnest apology in mid-sprint. To its credit, the movie never quite lets him off the hook for his cowardice.

When the action resumes, their son Jake is now five years old and Libby has only just recently permitted Dennis a role in his upbringing. Dennis never stopped loving Libby during the intervening years, but this is not a movie where the beauty waits to give the slob a second chance. Instead of a juvenile male fantasy, Run Fatboy Run plays out the rather grim consequences of living like a man-child. Dennis is too much of a failure to find appealing, too pathetic to inspire emulation. His job as a security guard doesn't cover his rent. For him, not forgetting his keys is a noteworthy accomplishment.

But time pushes on, and new patterns develop. The thing that scared him the most — fatherhood — has turned out to be the only thing that redeems him. Because he's so pathetic, he doesn't have any commitments to distract from being a father. And relating to the kid comes naturally to him, perhaps because he is in many ways still so child-like himself. Even though his promises to Jake frequently fail to materialize, Dennis's affection is so earnest and so obvious that his son still adores him.

The rest of his life is spent wrapped up in a circle of weirdos and fuck-ups that has remained largely stagnant for years. As a hobby, he sits in on backroom card games he has absolutely no idea how to play. Gordon, Libby's cousin and Dennis's best friend, mirrors Dennis's least flattering attributes. Whereas Dennis's failings are marred by the occasional redeeming quality, Gordon has made free fall into a kind of lifestyle. Unburdened by Dennis's longing for something better, his absolute lack of ambition gives him a sort of grace under meltdown that provides some of best laughs.

The story comes to life as Dennis watches Whit worms his way further and further into Libby and Jake's lives. At first Dennis seems willing to let them slide away. But slowly he begins to put up a fight. His early pleas to Libby are pitiful and sad, but he doesn't give up. Each attempt to woo her forces Dennis to attempt further self-improvement in order to succeed. To make a more better pitch, he unconsciously makes himself into a better man. There are false steps and distractions along the way, but Dennis eventually reaches a point where success might be within reach — if he can only do something extraordinary.

Simon Pegg, who plays Dennis, wrote the script with Michael Ian Black from Black's story. Black's schtick has always grated in the past, and some of it shows up here to the film's detriment. But Pegg, who has been writing brilliant roles for himself as long as he's been acting, really captures a plausible arc for this pitiful character. It's probably perilous to try and guess who wrote what. But let it be said that this is far and away the best thing Black's been involved in, and a solid addition to Pegg's already solid resume.

Run Fatboy Runsucceeds despite feeling frustrating uneven. Not enough of the jokes hit for the film to succeed on laughs alone. The resolution lacks the nuance necessary to be taken seriously. But both the comedy and the drama creep up in just the right ways, like a romantic comedy stripped of any sentimentality. Personal redemption is possible, the film declares, but not without pain and sacrifice. The weight and meaning of Dennis's journey comes from all his hard work along the way. What's more affirming than that?(***)

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