Jimmy Slonina and Andrew Jacobsen in Marathon (Photos: Gravitas Ventures)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Keith Strausbaugh & Anthony Guidubaldi
STARS Andrew Hansen, Natalie Sullivan
Those folks who have been missing those Christopher Guest mockumentaries something fierce would do well to check out the similarly styled Marathon. Following in the footsteps of such mock gems as Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, it’s an impressive feature-film debut for the writer-director-producer team of Keith Strausbaugh and Anthony Guidubaldi. Comedians who operate under the moniker Hot Tub Mimosas, they ably capture the proper cadence and — with one sizable (and unfortunate) exception — characterizations common to this sort of satire.
The focus is the Devil’s Canyon Marathon, an annual race organized by the nebbishy, Bob Balaban-like Ed Clap (Jimmy Slonina). It’s so puny an event and so haphazardly organized that it almost seems like an affront to actual marathons; nevertheless, it always attracts a handful of runners, five of whom are the subjects of this mockumentary. Make that four, as one of the would-be participants, Emilou Paunch (Kimia Behpoornia), decides to participate in the race and then almost immediately changes her mind; she spends the rest of the movie stuffing her face with snacks and binge-watching TV.
The four spotlight runners are well-written characters performed with gusto by four perfectly cast actors. Ryan O’Brien (Andrew Hansen) is the ultimate woe-is-me type, prone to macho posturing and declarative statements but actually a dork whose bad fortune is usually his own fault. Jenna Kowalski (Natalie Sullivan) seeks to break the world record of the fastest marathon time while dressed as a fruit; she opts for a banana outfit, only to become incensed when sponsor Dole sends out its own banana-wearing runner, a method actor named Ben Duffy (Roberto Raad). Shareef Washington (Tavius Cortez) is a committed athlete, but, being a black man, he finds it difficult to jog through neighborhoods while training without being tackled by cops every single time. And Abby Dozier (Anais Thomassian) has decided that she won’t let an unplanned baby prevent her from taking part in this year’s marathon, although the fact that her infant calls everyone and everything (her husband, the mailman, kitchen appliances, etc.) “Mama” except her has left her distracted and distraught.
In the best Guest tradition, Marathon is thick with the sort of asides and non sequitors that add flavor to the proceedings. There’s a bit of racial bizarreness from Abby’s husband (Marc Roberts), as well as an amusing dinner-table scene with Jenna’s crotchety dad (Ron Silver). Ryan often gets distracted from talking about the marathon, as when he discusses his divorce from a woman who cheated on him twice in the same week — his belief is that the person who caused the divorce should be obligated to find a new spouse for their ex-partner, no matter how long it takes.
The characters are overall so engaging that it’s a shame there has to be one bad apple — or, in this case, one bad banana — in the bunch. That would be Ben Duffy, the banana-clad actor representing Dole. He’s insufferable in the manner of the morons found on subpar television sitcoms, and, whereas the other characters have been created to have at least one foot in the real world (hence why mockumentaries can work so well), he feels like a complete movie fabrication — and a poor one, at that. The film becomes hard to take whenever Ben turns up, and one feels sorry for Sullivan in that her delightful character of Jenna is the one who has to share ample screen time with him (it’s also absurd that the filmmakers have the two become lovers over the course of the film).
Aside from Ben and some redundancy in the scenes with Emilou, there’s not much to dislike about Marathon. The dialogue is frequently sharp and the pacing (particularly during the climactic race) is brisk, and some of the characters even inspire genuine sympathy — Shareef’s Running While Black dilemma hits hard, while Abby’s frustrations as a new mom will be recognizable to practically every parent. Overall, the film’s a winner, even if many of its characters are anything but.
(Marathon will be available on streaming platforms beginning July 6.)