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Schultz reviews: “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” “The Goldfinch” and “Hustlers”

Schultz reviews: “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” “The Goldfinch” and “Hustlers”

Carl Schultz

 

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” Distributed by Amazon Studios, 103 Minutes, Rated R, Released Aug. 23:

As a stand-up comic, Jillian Bell’s style of humor relies on truth, and observational comedy — mining for laughter in life’s inconsistencies, as noted from an ironic perspective. In Bell’s first starring role in a major motion picture, the humor is a little different: It’s still based on truth, but in “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” the truth is the documentary type — the kind that’s awkward and uncomfortable, and occasionally even difficult to watch.

In “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” Brittany Forgler at age 27 is everybody’s best friend except her own. A girl with an oversized personality and a gift for laughter that lights up every room she enters, Brittany’s an emotional wreck inside, plagued by a combination of professional insecurity and toxic personal relationships.

When Brittany schedules a medical appointment with a young physician she finds online via Yelp! — mostly as a means of scoring some legal Adderall recreational medication — she learns the unfortunate truth that her lifestyle is catastrophic to her health: At 5-feet-4-inches and 194 pounds, Brittany has elevated blood pressure and an unhealthy diet which already is resulting in the onset of liver disease. The new doctor delivers the one verdict Brittany doesn’t want to hear: Go on a diet and get healthy, or risk mortal consequences.

Brittany’s first problem: She and her roommate scorn joggers and other health enthusiasts in their downscale New York City neighborhood as smug, judgmental and self-absorbed. Their upstairs neighbor Catherine, a buttoned-up running enthusiast whom they’ve nicknamed “Mrs. Moneybags,” is a daily source of mockery and derisive laughter.

But when continuing health concerns persuade Brittany she has nothing to lose, years of life to gain, and not much latitude either way, she decides to give exercise a try. Too broke to afford a gym and too proud to ask for help, Brittany dons athletic shoes, sweatpants and a hoodie, and runs one city block. To her surprise, the overweight novice does not die or even collapse from exhaustion, although it’s a near thing. So the next day she runs a little farther.

Soon Brittany finds herself not only running a mile at a time, but also accumulating a small circle of new friends, other fledgling runners in search of community and support . . . and that together they’re already dreaming big, of a possible entry in the following year’s New York City Marathon. Brittany’s additionally shocked to find that one of her biggest boosters is none other than the upstairs Catherine, Mrs. Moneybags herself, who eventually shares with Brittany a surprising revelation.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” benefits enormously from an empathetic and courageous performance by comedian Bell in the title role. Best known for her appearances on the Comedy Central comedy “Workaholics,” Bell scores a bullseye in a role that’s strenuous and decidedly unglamorous. If you can imagine the late, great Judy Holliday playing an aspiring runner, you won’t be too far off the mark.

With bright and intelligent eyes and an open, guileless face, Bell can wordlessly communicate not only Brittany’s humor, hope and determination as eventually her customary smirk softens with confidence into an easy and radiant smile, but also the continuing insecurities and frustrations during the failures that are a part of every self-improvement regimen.

When Brittany’s overtraining leads to a stress fracture in her leg, putting her onto the sidelines of her first New York City Marathon as her friends and running partners compete, Bell’s performance makes plain Brittany’s emotional defeat. Disillusioned and dejected, Brittany lapses for a while back into her old, unhealthy ways. But more crushing than the prospect of regaining the weight she fought so hard to lose is the sacrifice of her newfound self-respect: At one point, the dejected Brittany wails in despair, “People held doors for me!”

Written and directed in his motion picture debut by Pittsburgh-born playwright and screenwriter Paul Downs Colaizzo, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” contains a number of other standout performances, including Michaela Watkins as Catherine, Utkarsh Ambudkar as an amiable acquaintance, and Lil Rel Howery as Brittany’s brother-in-law and surrogate father Demetrius. Howery has the picture’s best line: As he’s giving Brittany a gentle chewing out for her fat-shaming an acquaintance, Howery’s Demetrius intones, “This was never about weight — it was about taking responsibility for yourself.”

The picture’s warts-and-all style of comedy, while often uncomfortable, is dramatically effective: “Brittany Runs a Marathon” stares down an array of the shortcomings most of us don’t like to acknowledge at all, but it’s a picture filled with the truths many of us live with every day. And in watching the movie’s flawed, imperfect and sometimes even unsympathetic title character triumph over her own worst tendencies, we feel as if we can do it too. In a way, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is more than a comedy — it’s a revelation, and even a source of inspiration.

By the end of the movie’s 103-minute running time, you’ll feel like you’ve known these characters for years. And as Brittany eventually begins to conquer her fitness goals and gains the confidence of knowing she has friends who actually cheer for her and wish her well, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” becomes that rare movie, which will coax laughter and tears from the audience simultaneously. Like Brittany herself, the movie starts out slowly and awkwardly, but triumphs in the end.

Distributed by Amazon Studios and placed into limited release in only five U.S. theaters on Aug. 23, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” expanded its release pattern into some 757 theaters on Sept. 13. The picture is earning superb reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 89% from Rotten Tomatoes and a weighted average of 74% from Metacritic.

Although similar in spirit to the 1978 made-for-television movie “See How She Runs,” “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is actually inspired by the true-life experiences of Brittany O’Neil, writer and director Colaizzo’s former roommate. O’Neil eventually evolved from her own unhealthy lifestyle, shed some 60 pounds, and now competes annually in the New York City Marathon.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon” is rated R for coarse language throughout, some sexuality and some drug material.

“The Goldfinch” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 149 Minutes, Rated R, Released Sept. 13:

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 novel by author Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch” has everything a $45 million budget can buy. Adapted from Tartt’s novel by author and playwright Peter Straughan and directed by award-winning filmmaker John Crowley, “The Goldfinch” has class, sophistication and production values to spare: Beautifully photographed and nicely acted, especially by supporting performers Jeffrey Wright and Nicole Kidman, the picture is also unremittingly bleak . . . and almost torturously dull. With a running time of 149 minutes, it’s almost lethal.

In “The Goldfinch,” 13-year-old Theo Decker survives a terrorist bombing at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The explosion kills his mother, but in the confusion following the catastrophe the boy spirits away the valuable 1654 Carel Fabritius painting ‘The Goldfinch.” With no family nearby and a roguish absentee father, Theo is placed temporarily with the emotionally remote family of his nerdish friend Andy, becoming especially close with Andy’s mother, Samantha.

Just as it seems as if Theo’s going to be adopted by Andy’s family, his estranged father Larry emerges in the company of a new girlfriend and reclaims Theo, relocating the blended family to Las Vegas. Some eight years later, the now-adult Theo returns with his stolen painting to New York City and renews an acquaintance with a man named Hobie, the owner of an arts and antiques shop whom he originally met through his former foster mother Samantha. Theo eventually goes to work as a sales associate in Hobie’s shop, and eventually drifts into the lucrative but highly illegal world of art forgery.

In a way, “The Goldfinch” is a kind of an upscale modern day version of the works of Charles Dickens, with Theo as an updated blend of Dickens’ David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Pip from “Great Expectations.” But instead of featuring Dickens’ compelling narrative plot twists, and eventual optimistic resolution, “The Goldfinch” is genteel to the point of inertia, gliding over the course of its mammoth running time to the inevitable conclusion that life is unpredictable, mysterious and sad, and crime doesn’t pay. And likely you already knew all that.

The picture’s primary problem is that, in condensing Donna Tartt’s 784-page novel into a motion picture, screenwriter Straughan attempted to preserve each obscure nuance and unnecessary plot twist. The result is a sense of objective detachment, viewer apathy . . . and eventual boredom. What was alive and compelling in Tartt’s novel becomes un-involving and aloof on the screen. As a result, the motion picture version of “The Goldfinch” is of marginal interest only to those viewers who enjoyed the book, and those who need to catch up on their sleep. Others beware.

“The Goldfinch” is receiving mostly un-encouraging reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of just 25% from Rotten Tomatoes and a slightly higher weighted average of 41% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assign the picture an average grade of B. Originally projected by distributor Warner Bros. Pictures to gross up to $8 million during its opening weekend, “The Goldfinch” after a dismal opening scored only $2.64 million, just enough to score an unimpressive ninth place finish in the week’s Box Office Mojo Top Ten.

Also starring Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald and Ansel Elgort as the adult Theo, “The Goldfinch” is rated R for drug use and language concerns.

“Hustlers” Distributed by STX Films, 110 Minutes, Rated R, Released Sept. 13:

Viewers attending a screening of “Hustlers” expecting either an evening of lascivious entertainment or a camp classic along the lines of 1995’s disastrous erotic drama “Showgirls” are likely to be disappointed. Although a certain amount of titillation is present in the picture — that’s sort of its point — the sexuality is used simply as a plot device.

Rather, “Hustlers” starts out to be a fairly hard-nosed little urban crime drama, a distaff version of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” with upscale strippers filling the roles of the fledgeling wise-guys. But while writer and director Lorene Scafaria with her first major motion picture is not quite up to emulating the style of Scorsese, “Hustlers” during its best moments is certainly reminiscent of some of Sidney Lumet’s later pictures, such as 1981’s “Prince of the City” and 1986’s “The Morning After.” That’s a compliment.

Based on journalist Jessica Pressler’s 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores,” in the fact-based “Hustlers” a crew of exotic dancers as an upscale New York City adult entertainment venue turn the tables on their Wall Street clientele following the economic crash of 2008.

Observing that almost everyone was hurt by the financial collapse except the traders and CEOs who caused it, a handful of dancers led by the veteran Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) hatch a scheme to employ a homemade version of the date rape drug ketamine to spike the drinks of some of the affluent Wall Street dealers who frequent their club. Their intention is to use the incapacitated dealers’ credit cards to max out their cash reserves and empty their corporate accounts.

Despite a few medical emergencies among their intended clientele, the dancers’ strategy works well . . . until Ramona takes under her wing an irresponsible, cocaine-addled dancer, who confesses the conspiracy to members of the New York Police Department in a plea bargain deal for another crime and sets up a sting operation targeting her friends.

Told in flashback style by novice dancer Dorothy, a single mother limited by her educational background and employment history who takes up erotic dancing as a means of supporting her family, “Hustlers” establishes a captivating tone early on, and remains a compelling social drama until its second hour, when the picture becomes more of a collection of vivid but disjointed individual scenes. By the picture’s final quarter, “Hustlers” unfortunately changes its perspective entirely to become a routine melodrama, more concerned with the emotional reconciliation of dancers Ramona and Dorothy than a vivid commentary on modern economic realities.

Still, “Hustlers” contains a small handful of outstanding dramatic performances. Constance Wu provides the picture’s emotional anchor as the novice dancer Dorothy. Last seen in the enormously successful 2018 romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” Wu’s characterization provides the heart and soul of the picture. Rationalizing that “hurt people hurt people,” Wu’s character Dorothy’s story frames “Hustlers” within the template of her conversation with a magazine journalist writing about the scam (Julia Stiles, wasted in a thankless role.)

But the lion’s share of the acclaim for “Hustlers” is going to the confident and commanding performance of Jennifer Lopez as the veteran exotic dancer Ramona. Observing of the Wall Street brokers following the 2008 economic crisis that “the firefighters’ retirement funds — that’s what’s paying for their (sexual favors)” and seeking to deliver the justice that the laws cannot, Lopez contributes the movie’s best characterization.

Already being touted for Academy Award recognition, Lopez’ performance in “Hustlers” is being called a comeback, which is undoubtedly an exaggeration by those critics who presumably missed J-Lo’s appearance last year in the charming comedy “Second Act.” But “Hustlers” provides for Lopez the best dramatic role she’s had since appearing in Steven Soderbergh’s crime thriller “Out of Sight” in 1998 — a full 21 years ago. And when the 50-year-old Lopez dances in “Hustlers” — which isn’t a lot — she seems unbound by gravity.

Playing in 3,250 theaters across the United States and Canada, “Hustlers” was expected by distributor STX Films to accumulate up to $30 million in box office revenues during its opening weekend. But buoyed by almost universal critical acclaim and positive word-of-mouth, the picture exceeded expectations and banked over $33 million in box office dollars, ending up scoring a second place finish in the weekend’s Box Office Mojo Top Ten behind the returning horror behemoth “It Chapter Two.”

Produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, “Hustlers” also features a nice supporting performance by Mercedes Ruehl as a den mother at the nightclub. Entertainer Usher appears briefly as himself, and pop sensation Cardi B contributes a tiny role as a streetwise dancer.

“Hustlers” is rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity.

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