by Philip Price
All comedies try to make us laugh. That's kind of the point. Still, there is a difference between trying to make audiences laugh by saying the unexpected out loud and those unexpected things actually being funny. In “The Bronze” Melissa Rauch, best known for her role on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” plays washed up gymnast Hope Annabelle Gregory who still managed to medal at the 2004 Rome Olympics after shattering her achilles during a routine. She became something of an American hero of those particular games, the athlete the media chose to heap large amounts of coverage on because of her narrative maybe more so than because of her actual talent. Hope says a lot of things that might not be considered polite or politically correct, but that doesn't make her funny. Sure, I understand that a fair amount of comedy can come from degrading someone, something, or even ourselves, but no matter how hard these demeaning jokes make us laugh (or don't) one thing remains to be true and that is the fact they come from a place of fear; we're attempting to distract ourselves from our own vulnerability. In short, we're trying to make ourselves feel better about our own lives. Hope does this consistently throughout “The Bronze” and while the juxtaposition of what we expect from polite society and what Hope delivers can be genuinely funny here and there the majority of the time the character simply comes across as self-centered, crass, and just plain nasty. Maybe this is because Hope is the only character the film cares to flesh out and so, while we somewhat get to know her father (Gary Cole), her new apprentice (Haley Lu Richardson), her love interest (Thomas Middleditch) and her arch nemesis (Sebastian Stan), because each of them are more or less targets for Hope to hurl her insults at rather than fully formed people it is nearly impossible for us to understand why she seems to naturally hate everyone. The only thing she clearly has an affinity for is herself and keeping her name and image at the height of its power in her hometown of Amherst, Ohio, but as these things go all of that is about to change.
In the opening scene of the film we are privy to the routine and the injury that made Hope something of a legend in Amherst before the camera pulls out revealing the footage to be that of a recording of the competition that Hope is still replaying twelve years later while pleasuring herself. It's a funny little gag right out of the gate that lets us know how much Hope gets off on her own glory. From here though, it is revealed that more than Hope simply being a disillusioned and sheltered child of an only father who was brought up knowing no other life than gymnastics which has now inadvertently crippled her development process she is instead just a disillusioned almost 30-year old who can't let go of the past, thinks the world owes her something and should bend to her every desire, and is little more than a spoiled brat. Had the script from Rauch and her husband Winston decided to explore more of the arrested development aspects of the character then we might have had something more interesting to explore, but as Rauch presents the character here we almost immediately dislike her. For the first half hour or so the film tends to feel rather aimless as we are shown Hope's tendency for breaking into her father's mail truck and scavenging for letters and cards filled with money so that she can go to the mall and spend it on worthless junk. She's a regular at the town mall as she knows every salesperson and regular customer by name. She also regulars the food court (getting Sbarro's for free) and local dairy bar eating more than it seems her tiny frame might be able to handle with no regards to keeping herself in shape despite her image being the only thing she clings to. It is when Hope's former coach, whom she had a severe falling out with, commits suicide and leaves her a letter instructing her that if she trains her latest protégé, Maggie (Richardson), and sees her through to the end of her campaign in the Toronto games that she will be granted an inheritance of half a million dollars. Game on.
The beats of the story are rather familiar and that the story ultimately turns into something of a redemption tale is only more disappointing. Once again, given the story commits to a certain type of character in Hope it kind of feels like her shift in attitude betrays the heart of the film. It isn't unbelievable that Hope would make the necessary strides to have the arc that she does in the film, but that it actually comes to fruition is largely discouraging due to its typical protocol and the fact they want us to believe a character who has been stuck in the same mindset for a decade or so would suddenly be willing to sacrifice her state of mind for a young upstart of a gymnast that threatens everything she lives and stands for. Hope wears her USA tracksuit every day because she says it is what heroes wear. She curses at her father for not understanding her need for a higher allowance than $500 a week and she constantly indulges in junk food to the point she should weigh about eight hundred pounds given we never see her perform gymnastics much less stretch, but are to believe she can keep up with Stan's gold medalist Lance when it comes to one of the weirdest, most aerobic sex scenes I've ever seen on film. Seriously, watching two gymnasts go at it was stranger than watching two puppets get their groove on. Still, despite the shortcomings of the actual plot and how it breeds more convention than not given the main character seeks to go against as much in every aspect of her life the development of Hope remains the focus throughout rather than shifting to Richardson's Maggie halfway through as it seemed it might. As Hope, Rauch clearly knows the character as the actress plays the character as if giving the audience a glimpse into a life of someone that has allowed themselves to be defined by one instance and one aspect of their lives. Never mind the sparse ideas the film has on finding minor celebrity or small town America, but rather it is Rauch's ability to somehow gain sympathy for this otherwise despicable character that is the highlight of the film. Though it's more pity sympathy than anything, we feel something nonetheless.
Overall, “The Bronze” is fine if not becoming all it had the potential to be. It wants so desperately to be a dark comedy of degrees. It wants to touch on the underbelly of stage parents, of single parenting, of a female daughter growing up with only a father figure to guide her and a father figure dead set on raising an athlete at that. And that's just in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. From there, the film finds its crux in swaying audiences to wonder whether Hope will sabotage Maggie in her ascendance to the world stage or if she will learn to transition into the next stage of her own life and allow Maggie her designated time in the spotlight. This transition is aided by Middleditch's presence as Ben, a gymnastics coach at the local gym who has a romantic interest in Hope, while challenged by Lance who is seemingly as self-involved as Hope, but somewhat more perceptive given his continued success after competing. As her father, Cole is strangely heartwarming as his confidence in his daughter never wavers and his love for her remains strong despite the constant tests she provides for such feelings. It is he that built this machine of curse words and orange soda though, and so I expect he has no choice but to feel responsible for turning her life around rather than watching her waste away in the memories of what she once was. It's fine, but like its protagonist, it tries too hard. While mostly annoying the film can be sporadically charming. Hope acts like a grown-up, but has no real ambitions of being a mature adult and in the end, “The Bronze” can't get past its sophomoric attitude and outlook to allow its own self to grow. That and it lasts about two scenes too long and every time the soundtrack kicks in it sounded like a Backstreet Boys song was about to play in some un-ironic fashion. Directed by first time feature director Bryan Buckley the film, once again, is fine, but given the potential and the downright despicable capabilities of Hope it would have been really interesting to see what either Jared Hess or Jody Hill might have done with the material. Of course, one could just watch “The Foot Fist Way” again and probably have a good idea.