Sunday, February 1, 2009

Running in circles: "Run Fatboy Run" leaves us where we started

by Lauren Rother

Romantic comedies confuse me. In fact, romantic movies in general confuse me. On the one hand, my initial introduction to the concept of romance was through romantic movies. These movies demonstrate some emotion, truth or wish in a way that resonates for us or they wouldn't make money. We can't help but feel for the protagonist, generally the underdog with some grand lesson to learn to propel him or her through life and love. On the other hand, these movies rarely mirror our own experiences. The way in which characters interact is often realistically counterproductive, if not completely untenable. Yet, we watch them. In fact, sometimes we mimic them, striving to find the love that has been presented to us over and over again onscreen.

From a feminist prospective, romantic comedies are frequently problematic because they often depict strictly heterosexual relationships (with any homosexuality limited to lesbians, whose sexuality is often portrayed as solely the sexual bait for men) where the woman is patient, determined, beautiful and a prize. Whether she is an initially unrecognized prize (Pretty in Pink) or an obvious prize needing the perfect champion (Notting Hill), she is still something that is awarded.

Run Fatboy Run stumbles into a few issues, from its title to the ways in which it handles male-female interactions. However, it takes baby-steps in the right direction, as well. This, naturally, leaves me more confused.

As a disclaimer, I truly love Simon Pegg's work. The man has a nerdy, nerdy gift for words that cuts right through all of my academic armor. Therefore, when I tell you that I liked Run Fatboy Run despite its occasionally problematic handling of gender, sex and size issues, you may take it with a grain of salt.

The basic rundown of the movie is that an out-of-shape, somewhat unattractive and unambitious man, Dennis Doyle, is still in love with the woman, Libby Odell, he ran away from, while she was pregnant, on their wedding day. Dennis can't follow through on anything he does, from remembering his flat keys to picking up his five year old child, Jake, on time, and he is roundly criticized for it. When Dennis finds out Libby is dating a new, stereotypically perfect man, Whit, he finds himself suddenly motivated to prove his worth to Libby. Naturally, this leads him to enter a 26 mile marathon that Whit is running in, with 3 weeks to train. With some help from his good-natured landlord, Mr. Goshdashtidar, and his ex-fiancée's gambling-addicted cousin, Gordon, Dennis learns important lessons about himself.

I think it is important to, for just a moment, acknowledge one significant forward step in Run Fatboy Run. Libby is a beautiful woman who is romantically entangled with a significantly less beautiful man, Dennis. She is an exceptionally pretty woman who has been patiently and responsibly been taking care of their child alone. This scenario toes a line that stretches as far back as we can glance. However, Libby is a woman of color. She is a woman of color who owns a business. She owns a bakery, and is appreciably more financially advantaged than Dennis. That's a step up from traditional representations of single-mother women of color. A baby step, but a step.

Despite how tired the "man running from commitment" line is, I don't really have issues with Dennis leaving a pregnant wife at the altar as a general plot device. This is namely because he is never commended for it, not even jokingly. In fact, an interesting reasoning for it is revealed a third of the way into the film. In a scene where Dennis is having tea with Mr. Goshdashtidar and reveals that he is planning to run the marathon to "show Libby that (he) can change," Mr. Goshdashtidar asks Dennis why he left Libby at the altar in the first place. When Dennis replies that he "just wasn't ready," Mr. Goshdashtidar tells Dennis, "the toothpaste was already out of the tube, being ready had nothing to do with it."

So why did Dennis run? Because, as Mr. Goshdashtidar tells us, Dennis "did not think (he) was good enough. (He) was terrified that he could not give (Libby) what she wanted, what she deserved." Naturally, Mr. Goshdashtidar tells Dennis that he would have made himself good enough throughout marriage, and reminds him that he had already earned Libby's affection. Later in the film, Dennis relates his lesson to Libby. At her birthday party, Dennis finds Libby alone on a balcony. He says, "I know I didn't do you any favors on that day. It was a stupid, stupid thing. But it was only because I thought spoiling your day was better than ruining your life."

The important bit is the acknowledgement that, in hindsight, the reasoning that essentially boils down to "it is up to me to decide what is and is not right for you," is wrong. This is emphasized by the introductory conversation wherein Dennis tells Libby that while he originally entered the race to win back her affection and still harbors the illogical hope that it will work out that way, he acknowledges that being in the race won't change her decision to be or not be with him over Whit. He states that his real goal is to win back her respect (and the respect of other people in his life). Why? Because she can make her own decisions regarding relationships. She has the reins.

But these are only taking baby steps. The fact is that this "I did it because I didn't think I was good enough for you" reasoning is used by a man (socially empowered) to alleviate himself of some of the guilt of a bad decision that harmed a woman (socially disempowered). So when we look at it: I made a choice that ignored your choices because I thought that I knew better than you what was in your best interest. Sounds a little less sweet now, doesn't it? And in the movie, it works. Libby gets teary, signaling a softening of the heart for this father of her child. The process of apology, semi-justification and forgiveness is a classic romantic move; it is a move that reinforces the idea that a good woman (one you should never leave in the first place) is one that will patiently weather all of your (male) bullshit while you pull yourself together.

The ending, which I am about to spoil for you, is also half steps forward and half steps backward. At the end of the movie, after Dennis has successfully finished the race and, in doing so, exposed Whit for the jerk that he is, Dennis and Libby are not together. Dennis's accomplishment seems to have largely benefitted himself, proving that he can pull it together and sorting out his inability to follow through. His final interaction with Libby is to pick up Jake and invite her to dinner later in the week, which she accepts. Basically, he has set himself up for another chance but has not accomplished a Forgiveness Miracle, wherein one positive action magically atones for years of inconsistent and inconsiderate behavior. Of course, there are issues with the fact that Dennis had to reveal to Libby what a jerk Whit truly was, because, clearly, she would never have figured that out for herself. And, when it comes down to it, Libby is still a prize; this is demonstrated perfectly as Dennis, having fallen just feet from the finish line, looks up and sees Libby and Jake, and then runs to them and collapses in Libby's arms.

Where does that leave us? That leaves us neutral. While Run Fatboy Run is still mired in some of the tired tropes of force-fed gender roles, it manages to eke out some resistance, making it slightly more realistic. It's witty, it's gross and it fails the Bechdel-Wallace Test.

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