The Bronze wields only one tool in its comedic arsenal: brute force. Starting with a sitcom pitch—“America’s Sweetheart as a foul-mouthed egomaniac”—director Bryan Buckley and star Melissa Rauch (known for, appropriately, sitcom The Big Bang Theory) drag the meager idea kicking and screaming to feature length. The movie is designed as a showcase for Rauch, who co-wrote the screenplay with husband Winston Rauch, but her character, a washed-up gymnast anti-hero who stomps and sulks and does plenty of things to make you cringe, is too shrill to earn more than a sporadic laugh, and too simple to prop up a movie. You’ll certainly pay attention to her, what with a thick Midwest-multiplied-by-20 accent and proclivity toward elaborately compounded swear words, but her whole schtick becomes monotonous after about five minutes into the film.
Rauch plays Hope Greggory, who once upon a time won a bronze medal with the USA gymnastics team in heroic fashion, a moment that clearly mirrors Kerri Strug’s famous ankle-breaking vault in the 1996 Olympics. With her career over due to injury, Hope never set out to coach or do commentary, but instead sits at home, masturbating to VHS recordings of her past, eating junk food and stealing birthday card money from her mailman father’s (Gary Cole) delivery truck. Yet, despite being thoroughly unpleasant, Hope has maintained a sort of celebrity status in her hometown. Her name is on the welcome sign; she gets free milkshakes at the local diner—but that’s all threatened by a young gymnastics sensation named Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson).
Richardson plays Maggie with a boundless joy: Not only does she love life, but she loves Hope, her childhood idol. When Hope’s old trainer dies, Hope is the only one left to become Maggie’s trainer, doing her best to set up the young protégé to fail. The give-and-go between the characters, between the extremes of positivity and of negativity, provides some of the film’s most enjoyably funny dynamics, but that’s it: The joke goes no further. There’s no punchline.
The Bronze is Buckley’s feature-length debut. The director made the Oscar-nominated short Asad in 2012, but his biggest claim to fame is directing a slew of Super Bowl commercials. As such, his visuals are both predictably bright and colorful, and his production design nails small-town charm as well as the odd world of Olympic gymnastics. Yet nothing ever really adds up. Even Thomas Middleditch, playing a very likable, stuttering gym assistant who has a crush on Hope, seems stranded, his character’s behavior and reactions never really balancing out Rauch’s raunchy misanthropy.
Part of the problem is that the movie aspires to be overtly shocking and crude, but secretly wants to play nice. If The Bronze had really dug in and pushed Hope’s story to a darker, more naturally destructive or ambivalent conclusion, it might have earned the right to stand behind such a wretched character. Instead, it lazily stumbles through the most boiler-plate romantic-comedy structure imaginable. We know all the notes before they are played.
It’s no accident that Buckley’s crowning achievement comes when he really pushes the boundaries of both reality and good taste. A sex scene between two Olympic gymnasts, in which they fully use their skills to mount each other with aplomb, is continually surprising and hilarious as the audience is pummeled with the gag, harder and harder.
But the success of that set-piece illustrates what’s wrong with the rest of The Bronze. It stands alone: The plot is unaffected; there’s no set up or pay off or anything beyond what’s in the scene. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—gymnast sex always has its place—but when it’s the movie’s only truly memorable scene, there must be an intrinsic failure in the film’s DNA to carry a cohesive story. A great gag does not a great movie make—and The Bronze can’t force you to think so.
Director: Bryan Buckley
Writer: Melissa Rauch, Winston Rauch
Starring: Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Haley Lu Richardson, Thomas Middleditch
Release Date: July 10, 2015