Watching elite athletic competitions in which the winners tend to peak during their teen years, some of us may have wondered: How long can a person ride on a single accomplishment? What happens when the telegenic champions grow up, and their curly bangs and winsome smiles aren't so cute anymore?
That's the serviceable premise of The Bronze, a raunchy, uneven indie comedy about a gymnast past her prime. A decade ago, Hope Annabelle Greggory (Melissa Rauch of "The Big Bang Theory") won America's heart in international competition by sticking a crucial landing in defiance of an injury. Her gumption netted her a bronze medal, a spot on "Dancing With the Stars," celebrity status in her tiny Ohio town and one mother of a sense of entitlement.
Now approaching 30, Hope is yet another comedic protagonist in a state of arrested development, subsisting on the largesse of her doting dad (Gary Cole) and the memories of her past glory. No longer America's sweetheart (except in her own mind), she saunters around town in a U.S. team warm-up suit, snarling cruel put-downs and demanding comps from the local merchants, including the weed dealer. In short, she's a perky, athletic version of the title characters of dark comedies such as Bad Santa and Bad Teacher.
When a dewy-eyed young gymnast (Haley Lu Richardson) begs Hope to train her, our heroine agrees only after she's promised a payout sufficient to get her out of Daddy's basement. But the audience knows that, sooner or later, a mentoring role will lead to positive changes in the attitude of this foul-mouthed pixie nightmare girl.
The film's greatest strength is that Rauch — who scripted with her husband, Winston — thoroughly inhabits the role of Hope. The screenplay itself has some great lines, but also no shortage of lazy humor: For instance, we're invited to laugh repeatedly at Hope's ignorance of basic math and vocabulary. And the movie milks its core joke — the incongruity of Hope's cutesy demeanor and insult-comic personality — almost to bursting.
Yet, behind the silly getup and exaggerated midwestern vowels, Rauch gives us the sense of a real person who's chronically disgusted with herself and everyone else. Hope's self-hatred rises to fever pitch whenever she tangles with an arrogant male gymnast (Sebastian Stan) who has his own post-medal issues. When she accepts a date with a fellow coach (Thomas Middleditch) whom she's mocked mercilessly for his facial tics, we catch her flicker of surprise at the realization that a decent person likes her.
The movie rises to its highest energy levels in such scenes, where Rauch has strong foils — and strong actors — to play off. Otherwise, it can be a bit of a slog. Director Bryan Buckley has won awards for his commercial work, but his camera work doesn't add much liveliness to these proceedings. Public spaces often feel underpopulated, sets underdressed.
That bare-bones approach is typical of modern film comedies built on a single character — the "'Saturday Night Live' skit stretched to feature length" model. To her credit, Rauch demonstrates that Hope has more inner life than your basic sketch-comedy oddball. Indeed, it's not hard to imagine the cuss-happy gymnast as the heroine of a sitcom where, like Leslie Knope or Michael Scott, she might blossom from a caricature into someone the audience cares about.
Given that the The Bronze didn't even come close to medaling at the weekend box office, that prospect is unlikely. But, if four-letter words and a scene that redefines the term "sexual gymnastics" don't put you off, the film is worth a look when it lands (soon, inevitably) on streaming services. Rauch's wicked portrayal of a precocious winner-turned-loser is good for some laughs — even as it makes the rest of us feel happier about our own sterling mediocrity.