There would be a narrow market for even the sappiest movie about a faded Olympics gymnast. "The Bronze" isn't that movie. It's weird, mean, dark—and pretty funny.
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For 17 days this August, billions of people will focus their attention on Rio De Janeiro, and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Unknown individuals will leverage years of lonely practice to (briefly) become household names, and we will see their egos grow about eightfold. Lost amid the wasteland of March film releases is a movie that dares to wonder what happens when the glory fades for an Olympic medalist, and also asks an unusual follow-up question: what if that same athlete was a total asshole?
The Bronze has been sitting on Sony's shelf for a little while, having been shot in a little over three weeks in July 2014 and premiering at Sundance last year. It grossed just over $420,000 in 1,167 theaters last weekend, which is rather sad considering the already dire state of the non-documentary, non-Air Bud sports film genre. I have reviewed three sports movies on their opening weekends since January, and a combined six people were with me in the theater when I saw The Masked Saint, Eddie The Eagle, and The Bronze; do the math, and I made up half the audience. This is not scientific, but it seems significant. It's also a bit of a shame, because these three movies are all perfectly watchable, and all—especially The Bronze—deserve a much wider audience.
Melissa Rauch is Hope Annabelle Greggory, the darling of the 2004 Olympic-Like International Competition, and—along with Texas Rangers outfielder Ryan Rua—the pride of Amherst, Ohio. In this Rua-free universe—or, anyway, he isn't mentioned—Hope pulls off the Kerri Strug-esque task of earning Team USA a medal after fucking up her left Achilles tendon, winning the titular bronze. Ten to twelve years later, we see her masturbate to this footage while snorting Sudafed. Hope's life has become stagnant, which is kind of a nice way of saying she's stealing from the mail her father (Gary Cole) delivers, and living off the free food she cajoles from the local diner and the Sbarro in her town's dead mall.
When the Russian coach who led Hope to Pseud-olympic glory kills herself, Hope gets a letter telling her that Amherst's newest Olympic hopeful, Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), needs a new and significantly less deceased coach for the games in Toronto later that year. It's obvious that something is fishy with the letter, but we ride with it. Hope at first tries to corrupt the virtuous Maggie by feeding her junk food and weed shakes before the competition committee's first meeting. It works only too well, but after realizing she won't get the promised $500,000 if she doesn't see her coaching duties through, Hope manipulates her way back onto Team Maggie. Once back in the fold, Hope—and this might be a spoiler, but how can you really spoil America's No. 22 Movie—actually does a pretty great job training her young charge.
By the time we reach (Ohio pretending to be) Toronto for the games, we see Hope kinda-sorta grow as a person, only to again collapse on the dismount. Hope finally realizes that the $500,000 bequest was a ploy from her father tricking her into getting her shit together, and throws away her nascent relationship with a romantic interest named Ben, whose facial tics earn him the non-endearing nickname of "Twitchy." The best scene in The Bronze occurs just before Maggie's routine, as Hope goes through her head what will happen if she does or does not sabotage her protege's performance. Maggie Townsend wins gold, but Hope slinks away unsatisfied, believing everything she has done—that is, stop being a gross mess for a little while and helping another person—has been for nothing.
Hope does get her redemption arc, but at the cost of Maggie, which sours the movie a bit. Maggie is never a horrible person, although qualifying as the most likeable non-Gary Cole character in this film is clearing a pretty low bar. But Maggie and her mother (Cecily Strong) abandon Hope to be coached by Lance Tucker, a longtime rival and part-time lover of Hope's, then compound the heel turn so egregiously that Hope manages to rally Amherst to her side again; she saves the gymnastics academy and gets Ben back, and the film's epilogue makes sure to emphasize Maggie's disgrace. It's the sort of movie—prickly, outwardly unlikeable, and more than a little mean in ways endearing and less so—that would go out of its way to mention that. And yet.
And yet: I still identified with most of these repugnant characters, not least of all Hope. For all of Hope's flaws, her misplaced morality and wild immorality, there's something empathetic under the narcissistic ruin of her life. The word "millennial" is not uttered in The Bronze's cinematic universe, which is for the best, but there are some familiar millennial tensions here—the sense of underachievement and burden, of not being able to let go of the high expectations of youth. Because Hope Annabelle Greggory is so much of a caricature, she's also sort of a relief—even the most wretched millennial wretch can identify with her while still feeling safe in the belief that we're not that horrible. Gary Cole, as Stan Greggory, brings humanity to his role as a well-meaning enabler, and delivers enough humor to make his friendship with a goldfish work. Of course he does, as Gary Cole is great.
Sebastian Stan, who plays some guy called "The Winter Soldier" in a bunch of movies, is great as Hope's dickish foil, Lance. Silicon Valley's Thomas Middleditch is fine as Ben, Hope's love interest.
The Bronze earns its hard-R rating many times over, and most spectacularly through a horrific gymnastic sex act that haunts poor Ben throughout the film. Editing this movie into a Comedy Central staple will be hard work, although surely a committed censor is working on it now. It would play well on the small screen, though, and would certainly be the most prolonged Comedy Central appearance for Craig Kilborn, who plays a sports announcer, since 1999. Craiggers actually does quite well, though his competence is not as surprising as cameos from both Dominique Dawes and Dominique Moceanu, not to mention Olga fucking Korbut, as commentators.
It's hard to say whether The Bronze is a star-making performance for Melissa Rauch, who co-wrote the screenplay and, as a supporting cast member on "The Big Bang Theory," is kind of already a star. No matter where Rauch's career goes, however, Hope Annabelle Greggory is a role and a performance to remember. Bryan Buckley, the prolific Super Bowl commercial director who helmed the VICE Sports holy grail The New Jersey Turnpikes, gives us a hint of what we could have expected from that legendarily long-shelved Kelsey Grammar vehicle. He nails the jokes he needs to nail, and deftly sketches Amherst, Ohio as an exemplar of both Small Town America and exurban desolation.
The Bronze is a movie that is vulgar on the surface but ultimately works as a dramedy. Hope compares easily to Kenny Powers from Eastbound And Down, but The Bronze really feels like a slightly less sociopathic take on the Jody Hill/Seth Rogen mall-cop Taxi Driver epic Observe And Report. That's not a formula for box office gold, unsurprisingly, but a bronze medalist with a blue streak is worth something, too.