Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell) is a well-observed, well-played, interestingly itchy character. She is, indeed, more interesting than Brittany Runs a Marathon knows what to do with. The film very obviously wanted nothing else but to be a lighthearted inspirational story drawn from life - Brittany O'Neill, to whom all this happened, is a friend of writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo - all the better to make everybody in the audience feel nice and warm inside. And I suppose if that's the only thing you want the movie to be, it will contentedly be that for you. But Brittany got away from the film a little bit. She's not just a warm and fuzzy object of inspiration; she's slightly too real in her motivations and reactions to the world around her, and as it develops, the film to which she's lent her name is obliged to let her flare out in unexpected ways. The result is both more interesting and more frustrating than I expected. More interesting, because complicated, grey-shaded characters are inherently more worthy of attention than one-note ciphers; more frustrating, because the film obviously wants a one-note cipher, and somewhat proceeds as though it has one. And regardless of any of the above, it has absolutely no sense of structure or momentum.

So who is Brittany? For starters, she's a 28-year-old New Yorker whose life hasn't gone the way she wanted, which would ordinarily be strike one against the film. But unlike a great many stories of wandering twentysomethings in the Big Apple, Brittany Runs a Marathon doesn't take place in a fairy tale land of expansive apartments in cute neighborhoods. One never quite figures out where Brittany makes her money (it can't all be from serving as usher at a black box theater), but otherwise there's a distinctly realistic tang to the film's portrayal of the miserable life of a young person scrabbling to make ends meet: Brittany and her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee), an Instagram make-up vlogger, live in a cramped, cluttered warren of rooms in an obviously shitty, dirty building on an ugly street. To take their minds off their lives, they go out drinking in unglamorous clubs. And so on.

None of this is the plot. The plot is that Brittany runs into the wrong doctor (Patch Darragh) while hoping to snag an Adderall prescription, and instead of filling her up with chemicals, he suggests that she make some healthy lifestyle choices, starting by losing some weight. So Brittany starts running, as best as she can. After an early running-related emotional meltdown, she catches the sympathetic ear of Catherine (Michael Watkins), the rich artist who rents the upstairs apartment as a studio, and is part of a running group; that's where she goes on to meet Seth (Micah Stock), a similarly miserable running-hater hoping to make an improvement in his life. As she starts to get into the flow of things, and her body starts to positively respond to the exercise she's forcing it through, Brittany hits upon an idea: why don't they all three agree to engage in the activity promised by the film's title?

The places it goes from here are no more original and surprising than the places it's been: running montages, Brittany gets her life in order, her movie-logic new job as a luxury house sitter puts her in contact with the spacey Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), to whom she has the kind of "I immediately hate you" response that can only possibly mean that they're going to fall in love, and Lessons Are Learned about loving yourself and letting other people love you as well, and not being standoffish and prickly and defensive. It's in that last clause that almost all of the most interesting material in Brittany Runs a Marathon resides. Because it's definitely not a very interesting movie, in the main. It has a tremendously flat narrative, even above and beyond how utterly predictable it is; the film stitches together something like the Greatest Hits of a year of training for a marathon, skipping over most of the interesting parts of Brittany's arc in the process. The arduous process of actually becoming good at daily running is condensed into one montage that involves a grand total of one day's worth of will power (as someone almost exactly as many pounds over my ideal weight as Brittany is over hers, the idea that you start to like running after just a few days of doing it is as stunningly unbelievable to me as anything ever seen in the most grandiose space opera), and the film is obliged to do a lot of summary through flat, formless dialogue. At one point, Brittany laments that she has almost reached her wits' end looking for a job, and she must lament this, because we sure as shit haven't seen any of it. Pretty much the same thing is true for just about every significant development that comes over her year of training: it happens offscreen, we're shown one single event, and we skip ahead. The goal of this couldn't be any transparent: the inspiring bit is when Brittany runs a marathon, so let's get the actual conflict and struggle out of the fucking way as quickly as possible (and then the film throws up a bunch of arbitrary roadblocks, which I assume happened in the real-life story, because no dramatic storyteller worth their salt would think that it was satisfying to leave such a shapeless pile of plot-stuff all over the final act of their inspiring sports movie).

But that's honestly kind of okay, because it's only when Brittany gets pretty far along in her journey that the really interesting character material happens. She turns into one of those insufferable people who only actually has one interest, and rather obnoxiously foregrounds it in every human interaction she has; and this is where Brittany Runs a Marathon reveals its secret, which is that she's a bit of a narcissist and an asshole, and she kind of always has been. For most of the film, she deals with anxiety by telling terribly unfunny jokes (the film thinks that they are funny, and so - excessively so - did the person immediately behind my left ear in the theater where I watched it), often adopting a bad Australian accent to do so, for some inexplicable reason, and she makes a big show about talking shit about herself, and once she becomes a fit, running-addicted jerk, it suddenly becomes clear that the narcissism was there all along, it just took a more bendy form when she had less self-confidence. The film isn't unaware of this. The ultimate message is explicitly not "be healthy and love yourself" but "don't arrogantly shove your friends away, and don't think it's a sign of weakness when you need to ask them for help". Which is a very good message, and one that becomes much richer if we consider that this, not self-confidence and not her weight, was Brittany's problem all along.

The film's problem is that it also really, really wants her to be likable and fun and relatable. And so it tries to ignore the off-putting things she does, despite that being the centerpiece of the conflict. In principle, there's no problem here: lots of people are both lonely and in need of a hug while also being irritating and in need of a slap. But that's a tall order for a sweet-minded crowd-pleaser to handle, and there's not nearly enough dexterity in the screenplay to come even close to making it all fit together. Coupled with the dull humor and the arrhythmic, ellipsis-filled story - not to mention the complete visual anemia, with the film so bereft of even the most basic form of individual style that I couldn't come up with a single place to wedge it into this review - this makes Brittany Runs a Marathon something of a hollowed-out shell, an indication of a movie more than a movie itself. Bell's tetchy performance and Brittany's complicated inner workings deserve more than the shapeless sludge this film provides for them.