Three stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and relentless profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.18.16
Redemption stories are as old as novels themselves, as today’s readers of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and countless other authors can testify. There’s something tremendously satisfying about following the adventures of flawed characters who eventually, finally experience an epiphany, subsequently becoming better versions of themselves.
While this narrative form has been equally popular on the big screen, recent examples have substituted the traditional shortcomings — avarice, deceit, betrayal — with revolting levels of vulgarity and malice. The protagonists in Tammy (Melissa McCarthy), Bad Words (Jason Bateman) and Trainwreck (Amy Schumer), among others, are social pariahs to a degree that is breathtakingly inexcusable ... not to mention their sporting potty-mouths that undoubtedly bring joy to giggling adolescents.
Which is, perhaps, an intriguing social statement ... since such uncouth, infantile sensibilities now seem perfectly acceptable to thirty- and fortysomethings.
(And current Republican presidential candidates. But that’s another story.)
More critically, the balance has been skewed. When we spend 92 percent of a film being horrified by our main character’s relentlessly nasty behavior, is salvation even possible? And even if a script arbitrarily insists on yes ... is it deserved?
The Bronze straddles a very narrow vaulting horse. Some will argue, with complete justification, that the film slips and lands with a thud on the wrong side of the mat. I’m inclined toward feeble generosity, thanks to a couple of clever last-minute plot twists ... but the viewing experience remains wincingly painful at times. Lots of times.
This Sundance Festival indie is a pet project by actress Melissa Rauch, well recognized in her long-running role as Bernadette Rostenkowski, on TV’s The Big Bang Theory. She and husband Winston co-wrote the script; they also co-produced the film itself, in which she stars. The result is — to say the least — light-years removed from her work in Big Bang, and not for the faint of heart (or easily offended).
She plays Hope Ann Gregory, who as a hard-working teenage gymnast became America’s sweetheart after bravely performing at the 2004 Olympics, despite having ruptured an Achilles tendon. The result: an unexpected and well-earned bronze medal. She returned home to a hero’s welcome in the working-class town of Amherst, Ohio, determined to train hard, re-ignite her career, and take a gold next time out.
But it wasn’t to be.
We catch up with Hope a decade later, embittered and hostile, a pint-size rage machine who spitefully takes out her frustration on every two-legged creature in her path. She still lives in her father Stan’s (Gary Cole) basement, rising each morning to bind her breasts — professional gymnasts aren’t allowed to have a bust line — and don the same Team USA gym suit, complemented by teeny-bopper bangs, ponytail and scrunchie.
She whines and curses her father over breakfast every morning, then steals money from random letters in his mail truck, and drives to the local mall. Once there, she milks her minor celebrity for free food, swag and low-level drugs from the fans and marginal hangers-on who still regard her as a Star. For which she is ungrateful.
She’s cruel and deliberately nasty, saying the meanest things possible at any given moment, inevitably punctuated by F-bombs and smutty sexual references. She’s also stupid — schooling apparently having taken fifth place, back in the day, to training, training, training and training — and contemptuous of anybody who dares correct her frequently ill-informed comments about anything from math to current affairs.
She is, in short, a thoroughly contemptible human being: a useless parasite who doesn’t deserve the air she breathes.
Whether any of her abusive behavior is “funny” rests in the eye of the beholder. Director Bryan Buckley, in an uneven big-screen debut, clearly plays everything for cringing laughter.
Details emerge slowly, much of our heroine’s hostility apparently stemming from a perceived betrayal by “Coach P” Pavleck (Christine E. Abraham), the Russian mentor who guided Hope to the 2004 Olympics. She also has little use for the local guy — Thomas Middleditch, as Ben — who manages the local gym where Coach P still trains hopefuls.
Ben has carried a torch for Hope all this time. Seizing on the poor guy’s facial tic, she insists on calling him Twitch.
It’s difficult to imagine how much longer Hope’s downward spiral might have continued, were it not for Coach P’s unexpected suicide, and the letter that reaches Hope posthumously. She has been named the sole beneficiary of Coach P’s impressive estate ... but only if Hope trains the coach’s final protégé, a gymnastics prodigy —bubbly Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson) — all the way to the upcoming 2016 Olympics.
Hope can’t think of anything worse, not least because of her disdain for the eternally cheerful Maggie’s good-little-Christian-girl innocence. But Hope also is greedy.
So, the question: Will Hope’s reluctant acceptance of this challenge help her rise to the occasion, along the way making her more deserving of the kindness and patience shown by her father and Ben?
Or, enraged by the notion of helping a rising star fulfill the dreams Hope never achieved herself, will she deliberately sabotage the impressionable Maggie, to ensure that Amherst never has more than one hometown hero?
As the weeks progress — given the relentless vitriol of this script — the latter seems increasingly likely.
On a purely analytical level, the dynamic here is intriguing. Billy Bob Thornton’s unrepentant turn in 2003’s Bad Santa comes to mind, but the distinction is that we neither expected nor wanted his disgusting character to change; he was funny precisely because of his reflexive misanthropy. Hope, in contrast, is simply a spoiled brat who never matured, and whose bad choices offer little to admire.
And yet, potty mouth notwithstanding, there’s an undeniably brave gusto to Rauch’s performance. She never cracks a smile, and that’s impressive enough, given her outrageously ghastly dialog. And her infrequent, grudging efforts at kindness are rather amusing, because they’re so clumsily inappropriate.
Rauch also lights up wickedly when Hope begins poor Maggie’s “training,” eagerly embracing this chance to thoroughly debase an unworldly innocent. Richardson, for her part, is wonderfully clueless: endearingly, unwisely trusting, and utterly ignorant of Hope’s sexually combustible comments and suggestions. Their dynamic is appallingly awkward ... and, yes, that makes it pretty funny.
Ultimately, all of this is made more palatable because of the faith in Hope shown by Stan and Ben. Cole is spot-on as a loving, devoted father at his wit’s end, over what to do about the only child — once an adoring daughter — who has become such a monster. Although Rauch plays Hope as a grotesque, Cole’s Stan is firmly grounded: our rock of uncomplaining (if helplessly resigned) moral integrity.
The amiable Middleditch, a regular on TV’s Silicon Valley, is similarly sympathetic. Although poor Ben’s twitch is an uncomfortable distraction — we know that we shouldn’t laugh at it, and yet (with Hope’s encouragement) we do — he is nonetheless endearing in a self-conscious, aw-shucks way. And Hope absolutely doesn’t deserve him, which of course is the point.
Sebastian Stan pops up as former men’s gymnastic star Lance Tucker — briefly Hope’s boyfriend, back in the day — and now a rival coach looking to snatch Maggie for his own team. Stan is appropriately smarmy, and his presence provides unexpected balance: Lance is, truth be told, far more unpleasant in the ways that really matter.
Although Rauch’s film mostly limits its outrageousness to verbal excesses, Buckley and editor Jay Nelson superbly choreograph one physical encounter that demonstrates, in fully limber and naked glory, what it might be like when two world-class gymnasts have rowdy sex. It’s a scene destined for permanent Internet afterlife, as hilariously exaggerated as the swimming pool encounter between Kyle MacLachlan and Elizabeth Berkley, in 1995’s Showgirls (demonstrating that Russ Meyer’s sensibilities were decades ahead of their time).
I’m not sure the sequence actually belongs in this film — things sorta dead-stop in its wake — but it’s certainly audacious.
So, consider this a reluctant endorsement. The Bronze is well named, as it probably deserves a bronze. Rauch, as co-scripter, undertakes the almost impossible challenge of daring us to like Hope Ann Gregory ... and she almost pulls it off.