Thursday, April 17, 2008

That Fatboy Boy

Another day, another movie. Oh the grind! This time it's ...

Run Fatboy Run (d. David Schwimmer)

A writer friend of mine once told me that every year it got harder and harder to write love stories. To be effective, a love story has to have a reason why the two sweethearts can't get together. Back in the "good ol' days," there were plenty of stumbling blocks and barriers to the consummation of a couple's love: they could be from different ethnic or social backgrounds; family might disapprove for any of a number of reasons; economics could factor in; simple distance seemed insurmountable in the past. But as society grew more accepting of those traditional differences, as technology reduced distances to a mere jet flight, love stories lost many of the outside pressures they had relied on to keep lovers apart.

If you've ever wondered why so many Cartland romances are set a hundred years or more ago, that's the reason. It's easier to sell a blustering father forbidding his coquettish aristocratic daughter from EVER seeing that low-born roguish stable boy again in 1843 than it is in 2008.

And all that is by way of bringing us to the modern romantic comedy. Without societal and traditional pressures to act from the outside to bar a couple's love, the modern romantic comedy has to work from the inside out. If there's no barrier, there's no story, but now, the barrier is always the couple themselves, usually the man.

In David Schwimmer's Run Fatboy Run, Dennis (Simon Pegg) and Libby (Thandie Newton) are in love and on the verge of marrying. They're so much in love that they've jumped the gun a bit; Libby will be standing at the altar noticeably pregnant. Then Dennis panics and bolts. The movie doesn't even attempt to give him a reason, probably wisely, since any reasonable excuse would have to somehow trump the notion of being married to the sublime Thandie Newton.

But bolt he does. Because this is a love story. And if he doesn't run out, he can't spend an entire motion picture trying to win her back.

After that, Dennis's life becomes a spiral of underachieving and regret. He lives in an unkempt basement and works as a security guard at a women's clothing store, haplessly trying to run down shoplifters.

Libby, meanwhile, has moved on. She owns a successful bakery -- and no wonder, since it bears the accurate name, "Libby's Nice Buns" -- and has met Whit (Hank Azaria), a wealthy marathon runner who's as responsible and steadfast as Dennis is rudderless.

Finally, determined to correct the inexplicable error he made on what should have been his wedding day, Dennis decides to try and regain Libby's love by beating Whit at his own game: a marathon.

No spoilers here, but anyone who can't guess how this ends up needs to turn in his or her frequent moviegoer's pass.

With solid but unspectacular direction by David Schwimmer -- who most of you probably remember from "Friends," but who will always be Greenzo to me -- Run Fatboy Run plays like a pretty good episode of an okay sitcom. It might be a coincidence that the premise here is almost identical to the predicament faced by Jennifer Anniston's Rachel at the very beginning of the "Friends" pilot. Might be, but probably ain't.

The script by Pegg and recent "Reaper" guest star Michael Ian Black settles too often for mild sweet smiles, rather than amping up and generating actual comic electricity. It's a shame because they've assembled a skilled cast who easily could have handled more pointed material.

Azaria's comic gifts are wasted in the role of the stereotypical jerk. And Dylan Moran, a truly great British comedian who American audiences may not be familiar with, gets more laughs than anyone else as Libby's cousin and Dennis's friend, but also is never used to full advantage. Seek out his work in the magnificent Britcom "Black Books." Or better yet, try to track down some of his stand-up work. You'll see what I mean.

For all it's flaws, Run Fatboy Run is genuinely sweet and watchable, never overplaying the syrupy stuff. I couldn't help but hope for something leaner and meaner, though.

2 1/2 stars.

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