Remember Béla Károlyi and Kerri Strug? If not, that’s fine, but they dominated Olympic press in 1996 with their Bodyguard-like walk off. In 1984, Mary Lou Retton won two bronzes, two silvers, and a gold medal and was heralded as a hero. Strug got to be on Saturday Night Live. Retton was in 1988’s Scrooged. Both were on the Wheaties box. Both appeared at the Republican National Convention in 2004, and then, well, it gets harder to follow. Where do female gymnasts go when they’re no longer marketable?
The point: being a professional gymnast could lead to disappointment. Big-time exposure comes once every four years, and moves on to the next crop of youths immediately thereafter. It’s the sad truth for athletes that don’t make $30 million a year, and it’s most insightful thing in The Bronze’s playing field. A homespun sports farce, Bryan Buckley’s The Bronze is a curiously sloppy dramedy about a trucker-mouthed mat master and what the hell happened to her when the well not only went dry, but turned gaseous and venomous.
The Bronze is about Hope Anne Greggory (Melissa Rauch). From the bowels of small-town Ohio comes Greggory, a former Olympic bronze medal gymnast and American sweetheart. She was the underdog story of the 2004 Olympics.
Fast-forward to now. Hope’s the cock of the walk in her native Amhurst. She’s always covered in her decade-old threads. She has diner specials named after her, gets deals at the mall Sbarro, and even once appeared on Dancing With the Stars. She’s a faded sort of celebrity. Hope’s also stealing mailed cash from her father’s Postal Service truck, snorts Claritin, and is verbally abusive. When we first meet her in the present, she’s masturbating to videos of herself competing in past games in her dingy old tween bedroom, as a form of clingy relief and nostalgia. If that seems shamelessly attention-seeking, just keep in mind that The Bronze engages in this kind of game with Greggory. Yes, she’s a ball of red-white-and-blue fury, but the town seems to love her. She’s about as sweet as a Sour Patch Kid. Unpleasant as Rauch can be, though, she’s always interesting.
When asked about her new sneakers, Greggory replies with heat: “They send me so many for frickin’ endorsements. At some point I have to tell them to back the fuck off.” It’s needlessly harsh, and she’s always like that, but you get chewed up and spit out by the Olympic committee and not be a little on edge … there’s tension and resentment beneath the bluster, even if it takes a minute to find. Hope’s certainly fallen on hard times, but she’s comes into a coaching gig for an up-and-comer, Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), a religious innocent who doesn’t seem to mind Hope’s cruelty. Hope is aided by her anxious assistant coach Ben (Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch), and is being psychologically tormented by her first lay, former gold medalist Lance (Sebastian Stan with a sick ‘80s bad guy name, dude). However, Hope keeps all the people around her at arm’s length, because everything’s about her and her alone. Initially, Hope wants to sabotage the child star, but eventually learns lessons about the errors of her ways.
And there’s The Bronze’s big flaw: it goes for bittersweet comedy and hot-button offense, but doesn’t go all the way. Buckley, working off a script from Rauch and her husband Winston Rauch, never quite finds a handle on the tone. Rauch gets raunchy, the core irony of Bronze being that this petite athlete has a big, bad mouth. It’s a clever idea, but Rauch doesn’t have the loud, linguistic creativity to sustain a full-length movie. Instead it’s just f-bombs, strewn about a patchy film. The concepts are all there, but is The Bronze something of a sub-Coen satire about high-level competition? Or a Farrelly smorgasboard of gross behavior? Or are Buckley and the Rauchs working toward something more observational, small and character-driven? It’s never clear, and The Bronze suffers for that. The film trips a lot on its balance beam of surly and silly.
Still, The Bronze has two things going for it: the concept and its lead.
Greggory, as a walking character study, is the film’s shining feature. Melissa Rauch stretches, twirling herself around every last “frick” or “fuck” she can steal. She’s daring, if incompletely conceived in certain respects. At least Rauch’s all in, willing to be unlikable, and barbaric. She can own a scene with brute force, and one wants to see more, better crafted characters from the actress in the future. And the ideas about how we treat athletes after their prime is rife with broken-hearted genius, but so weakly articulated here. Foxcatcher competed in the same arena and worked wonders as an angst-ridden plea and even as a dark comedy.
Here’s a film with an eyebrow-raising logline that might appeal to curious viewers, but ultimately disappoints. It’s with a lightly cruel irony that The Bronze may be a flash in the pan, much like its protagonist.