07 April 2008

Run, Fatboy, Run

Run, Fatboy, Run

It’s hard to tell what we’ll get when an actor takes a seat in the director’s chair. Just last year, Ben Affleck gave us the brilliant crime saga Gone Baby Gone. More often, though, we get something along the lines of Run, Fatboy, Run, which comes to us from David Schwimmer, better known to millions of TV viewers as Ross from Friends.

There are reasons to have high expectations for Fatboy. The story is from the mind of Michael Ian Black, best known as one of the talking heads from VH1’s I Love the '80s. He shares the screenplay credit with Simon Pegg, star and co-writer of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, two of this decade’s best comedies. Black’s original script had the story set in New York; Pegg was brought in to punch it up when the decision was made to move it across the pond to England. Pegg’s subtler, more natural comedic sensibilities are at odds with the movie’s Americanized sense of humor.

Fatboy possesses a fundamental problem that would take more than Schwimmer’s rudimentary direction to solve. I kept searching for a reason to root for its lead character, Dennis, other than the fact that he’s played by Simon Pegg. It’s almost enough, which says much about the actor Pegg is. Dennis is a likable guy, or, that is, he would be likable if he didn’t leave his pregnant fiancée, Libby (Thandie Newton), at the altar in the film’s prologue. He sprints down the street, away from friends and family, as the devastated Libby futilely calls out to him.

Jump ahead five years and Dennis is still running, this time after a shoplifter at the lingerie store where he works as a security guard. It’s far from a charmed life he leads. He’s behind on his rent and his landlord, Mr. Ghoshdashtidar (Harish Patel), and especially his landlord’s daughter, Maya (India de Beaufort), are eager to kick him out in favor of a more reliable tenant. Can’t say I blame them. Dennis’s best friend, Libby’s cousin Gordon (Dylan Moran, another Shaun of the Dead alumnus), is kind of a scumbag and apparently has a creepy aversion to pants.

Libby has allowed Dennis to be part of their son’s life and, to his credit, he tries hard to be a good dad to young Jake (Matthew Fenton). He sees a threat in Libby’s new boyfriend, a rich American named Whit (Hank Azaria). Out of jealousy and the hope that he somehow can still win Libby back, Dennis enters a London marathon in which Whit is a participant.

Despite the London setting, there is none of the dry wit that is the hallmark of so much great British comedy. Instead, there is broad, physical comedy: Dennis in tiny running shorts; a giant blister on Dennis’s foot after his first day of training; a couple shots of Gordon’s naked rear; and the insulting treatment by the filmmakers of Mr. Ghoshdashtidar, who we surely are supposed to laugh at because of his funny accent and clothes.

The humor seldom rises above the level of a sitcom, which, if done well, can be entertaining in 30-minute chunks. But when it’s done poorly and lasts 100 minutes, things get ugly in a hurry.

It’s not the actors’ fault. They are a talented bunch that does well to wring what little humor they can out of the listless script. Moran, when he’s wearing pants, gives the most consistently good performance and gets most of the best lines. His efforts are all for naught, though, as Schwimmer aimlessly wanders about each scene, failing to build any sort of momentum. A lack of energy matches the absence of imagination. It’s a lazy effort that offers little encouragement for the future of Schwimmer’s directorial career.

(Rated PG-13 for some rude and sexual humor, nudity, language and smoking. 100 minutes.)

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