Simon Pegg’s latest turn as an improbable leading man finds him having abandoned his pregnant fiancée (the improbably fabulous Thandie Newton) at the altar and living a sad little existence after the fact. In the film’s opening scene, he appears to be a policeman (a nod to his 2007 parody Hot Fuzz) chasing down a thieving drag queen. When he (finally, laboriously) recovers the stolen goods, however, it becomes clear that he is not living the glamorous life of a real crime-fighter; he’s a security guard for a swanky women’s clothing store. The sad part is, he’s not even good at his job. He plunks down the lacy pair of pilfered panties on his boss’ desk only to be confronted with her angry retort, “What about the bra?” Here Pegg’s character’s distinguishing feature is revealed, as he tries to get out of chasing the drag queen a second time: “I’m not fat,” he whines indignantly to the ladies in the shop, “I’m unfit!”
The film proceeds from this setup in a quite predictable fashion; anyone who has seen the myriad exported “Britcoms” of the past decade (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, etc.) can guess everything that happens long before it actually does. The film (directed by Friends star David Schwimmer, oddly enough) is still engaging, however, though it suffers from the crucial flaw that also plagued Pegg’s breakout 2004 film Shaun of the Dead. Both films teeter uncomfortably between humor and pathos, and while it’s true that any great comedy will judiciously mix the two together, Fatboy and Shaun haven’t got the recipe quite right. The old adage that comedy is tragedy happening to someone else is taken a bit too far in both films when, after a point, the tragedy ceases to be comic and starts to be just plain tragic after all.
The crux of Fatboy comes when Pegg’s unfit Dennis decides that the only way to win back his long-lost fiancée’s heart (and their little son) is to beat her strapping new boyfriend (a strangely convincing Hank Azaria) in a London charity marathon. Azaria’s character gets nastier and nastier, eventually sabotaging Dennis’ chances to finish the race. In the end Dennis prevails, and his dream of reconciliation is hinted at in the film’s final scene. All’s well that ends well, apparently, even running twenty-six miles for an erectile dysfunction charity.
This film is a great date movie, an easy-to-follow mix of puerile hijinks and rather sappy poignancy. However, especially when compared with Shaun (and even Hot Fuzz) the film seems to lack a certain soulfulness and honesty that I’ve come to expect from Pegg’s exploits. Whereas the former two films had narratives built on an obsessive love of and homage to their particular genres (zombies and action films) Fatboy seems more like a drawn-out vignette than an actual feature-length conceit. It follows, then, that the film’s best and somehow most convincing moments come during Dennis’ “training” phase of the film. The absurdity and elitism of self-proclaimed athletes like Azaria’s character are used to hilarious effect, making it clear that “average guys” like Dennis (and everyone in the audience) aren’t equipped with the sheer egotism required for something like a charity marathon. Dennis develops the world’s biggest blister on his foot, falls off his bike in a spinning class, endures the horrors of skimpy running shorts, and tries to drink an entire glass of raw eggs. But we feel for him, acutely, because his aims are so noble—he’s just caught in a painfully ironic situation, where the one thing he feels least capable of is the one thing he must accomplish above all others. And at this particular moment, faults aside, isn’t that exactly the sort of film we’d all like to see?