Running on Empty 

click to enlarge art14_film_fatboy_100.jpg

It's not easy to believe that Simon Pegg could end up with Thandie Newton. For that matter, would you even believe Hank Azaria, in the role of a super-stud, could bag her? "Run Fatboy Run," starring Pegg as a perpetual loser who tries to change his life and win back his fiancée by entering a London marathon, has a lot of believability issues. That's fine for a comedy, except when comedic issues are worse.

Rather like its lackadaisical lead, its pudgy characterizations and lily-white jokes could have used some toning before they were ready for the multiplex. "Run" is an occasionally charming but ultimately a far too breezy jog through romantic comedy tropes, along with pratfalls intended as a not-so-subtle symbol of ineptitude. This modest stab at humor is a running, though unintentional, symbol for the movie's faults as well.

When we meet Pegg's Dennis Doyle, he's sweating profusely through his tux and soon dashing down the street from his own wedding, leaving a pregnant Libby (Newton) holding the proverbial bouquet. How long has it been since this wedding-day-jitters thing was believable? "Run Fatboy Run" gives us a credible motive for Dennis' fears later in the movie, but it would have been better to have it up front. We scratch our heads, "five years later," when Dennis is still pining for his former betrothed while taking their son on excursions.

Soon we are knee-deep in dilemmas, all of them highly predictable. Dennis' life has gone to the birds since the breakup. A lowly security guard at a women's underwear store, he lives in the basement apartment of hard-to-pronounce landlord Mr. Goshdashtidar (Harish Patel), who chastises him about late rent. At this point you suspect director David Schwimmer (yes, of "Friends") asked during editing where the laugh track button is, especially when you meet Dennis' nemesis, Whit (Azaria), who's courting his ex.

Whit turns out to be -- wouldn't you know it — everything Dennis isn't: rich, handsome, competent and in-shape enough to run a 26-mile charity marathon that Dennis fixates on as his stratagem to prove he's changed. The odd thing about the marathon is that, though it is the focus of the title, it's just one of many showdowns in the movie between Dennis and Whit. When Dennis fails to get his boy "Lord of the Rings" tickets, Whit gets front row. When Dennis and the tyke are at the lake with their remote-control ski boat, Whit shows up with a galleon armed with miniature cannon. You get the picture.

If the plot feels like it was patched together from sitcom pilots, the gags fare a little better. Though many feel flabby, such as Dennis' trip to a spin class after which he falls down the stairs, a few glean a chuckle or two from the audience. There are too few to waste with description here, but most involve Dennis' laconic sidekick, Gordon (Dylan Moran), who urges Dennis on to race so he can win a bet with a bunch of lowlifes who don't think the fat boy will make it.

Thus begins the requisite training sequences, first for some comedy about Dennis' gut and his obscenely tight-fitting workout gear, and then as padding as the film inches toward the finish line. Audiences who breathe a sigh of relief when the big race finally arrives will be disappointed to learn that its beginning is nowhere near the end of the film. "Run" develops many reasons to stay on its track long after it's left laughter in the dust.

Unless "Run" is an anomaly, audiences may at some point start to view Pegg in much the same way Newton's Libby views Dennis, as an irascible cut-up whose former charms have worn thin. Though Pegg's former offerings that have washed up on American shores — satires like "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" — are much more imaginative, they aren't the kind of classics that can sustain a career through a series of lackluster rom-coms. Like the movie, we need to see a big improvement from Pegg next time for another shot at our attention. (PG-13) 100 min. S

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