When actors go behind the camera, one usually spies hitherto unknown traits of artistic personality. David Schwimmer’s first bigscreen directing effort reveals something very different: a thoroughly competent mainstream craftsman who imposes no individual character on formulaic material. Comedy starring Simon Pegg as a runaway groom trying to win back his love by running a marathon is a polished, innocuous, by-numbers affair in the mode of “Wild Hogs” or pre-“Harry Potter” Chris Columbus. Pegg might give pic a leg up in Blighty, but lack of marquee stars and Brit setting could muffle impact in North America.
Pegg is credited as co-writer (with story originator Michael Ian Black), though the script was originally set in New York before London-based Material Entertainment came aboard. Despite transplant to a London setting and a mostly Brit cast, the pic, with its triumph-of-solo-underdog arc, feels like Hollywood product — closer to the Farrelly brothers than to Pegg’s home-turf collaborations with Edgar Wright (“Hot Fuzz,” “Shaun of the Dead”).
Prologue finds working-class stiff Dennis (Pegg) a nervous wreck in the moments before he’s expected to wed heavily pregnant g.f. Libby (Thandie Newton). When it’s time, he runs — literally, pursued by bride and wedding party.
Five years later, he lives in a basement flat, works as a lingerie-store security guard and spends every waking moment aware that he blew it big-time. Libby is willing to let him spend time with their son Jake (Matthew Festoon), but she won’t even acknowledge his pathetic attempts to start things over again. Slamming that door tightly shut is her serious new boyfriend, Yank financial exec Whit (Hank Azaria), who is handsome, rich, reliable, fit, attentive and several other things Dennis isn’t. He’s even nice as pie to Libby’s ex — which annoys our hero even more.
Sick of being a loser, Dennis impulsively vows to Libby that he’ll compete in the same 26-mile charity marathon his hyper-fit rival is running.
Trouble is, the event is in three weeks, and as Dennis prefers to put it, he’s “not fat … just out of shape.” Nonetheless, he makes at least an initial committed effort. For reasons of their own, some financial and some altruistic, best friend Gordon (Dylan Moran) and landlord Mr. Ghoshdashtidar (Harish Patel) sign on as his whip-cracking trainers.
There are no surprises here — just broad, frequently slapstick gags that don’t avoid but do tamp down a bit on the bodily-function school of yokkery. Lengthy race finale lacks the nerve to parody inspirational-sports-pic cliches, instead playing it fairly straight.
Pegg, Newton and Azaria are all first-rate talents coasting through mediocre material. Irish comic Moran’s shrugged-off line deliveries score a few points.
Slick pic hews to comedy conventions of the moment, frequently driven by a soundtrack featuring various pop artists; production package is slightly above-average for the genre, with a nice, warm look to Richard Greatrex’s location lensing. While there’s not much here to warrant critical praise, Schwimmer handles everything with the kind of pro confidence that leaves little doubt he’s got a second career track if he wants it.