Sundance 2015 Review: ‘The Bronze’ Won’t Smelt Your Heart
There may be no older nor more effective drama than watching a mean person become slightly less mean. But the trick is, you still have to like these people when they are jerks. You have to actually want to watch them grow into someone more mature, more understanding, and more peaceful. Say what you will about Ebenezer Scrooge, but at least he had a hard-earned ethos, and at least he gave Bob Cratchit a half day off at Christmas.
Of late, filmmakers seem to have been struggling with keeping the old “indifference to concern” storyline alive, and the solution that many have come up with is to make the supposedly lovable bastards at their movie’s center a lot less lovable. Jason Bateman was a despicable villain for most of the spelling bee comedy Bad Words, so much so that by the time the movie finally got around to redeeming him, he had almost lost us entirely. A similar fate befalls Melissa Rauch in The Bronze, a cleverly conceived, occasionally funny, but mostly unpleasant motion picture.
Rauch, who also co-wrote the screenplay, plays Hope Ann Greggory, a former Olympic gymnast who won the Bronze Medal, but under spectacular circumstances. When we meet her again years later, she is literally masturbating to her old footage, surrounded by medals, crunching up sinus medication with her trophies and inhaling it with gusto. She is also vicious to her kindly dad Stan (Gary Cole), steals money out of the mail, and dutifully collects every gratis piece of merchandise that the town of Amherst, OH is willing to give her.
Fate steps in when her estranged coach dies, leaving behind a suicide note that offers Hope $500,000 to finish a promising young gymnast’s training. Naturally, that gymnast is a ray of fucking sunshine named Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), who dutifully follows every piece of advice Hope offers, even when it is intentionally designed to destroy Maggie’s chances at Olympic gold, and preserve Hope’s tenuous position as the only hero in town.
It is a testament to Melissa Rauch’s formidable charisma and comedic abilities that Hope doesn’t have us filing out of the theater. We know there must be an inherent sweetness to Hope Ann Greggory, because otherwise there probably wouldn’t be a movie about her, but finding it is a disturbing chore for nearly half the movie. By the time she develops a genuinely sweet connection with a former emotional punching bag named Ben (Thomas Middleditch), we finally start to see that there is a human being inside this cruel, self-obsessed harpy, who is eager for handouts of every stripe but lacking in humility because she simply believes that she’s entitled to them.
But The Bronze doesn’t make a beeline towards redemption, and the film’s third act finds Hope once again testing our patience and our sympathies. It may be a natural dramatic turn to have a character relapse into old habits but The Bronze pushes the limits of that old plot device. There is indeed a funny centerpiece, an elaborate exploration of the sexy gymnast fantasies held by so many (at least, that’s what “Seinfeld” told us), but the sequence is so broad that it also feels forced, and its extremity only adds twisted, nearly unforgivable insult to consequences that come afterwards.
One imagines that a character like Hope Ann Greggory represents an appealing challenge to a filmmaker as well as a performer, so specific is her physicality, so extreme are her out-lashings, so tentative is her gradual emotional growth. Pulling it off would have been an Olympian achievement. And yet despite occasional moments of sweetness, occasional guffaws at wickedness, and a few moments of inspired storytelling, The Bronze doesn’t live up to the challenge. Hope may still be a memorable creation, but for too many of the wrong reasons.