In the cranky, foul-mouthed tradition of bad grandpas, bad teachers, bad Santas and so forth, “The Bronze” unveils yet another vinegar-spirited comedic antihero: the bad sport. Catapulting herself into the public eye, “The Big Bang Theory’s” Melissa Rauch stars as Hope Ann Greggory, an Olympic has-been who’s ridden the celebrity of her third-place gymnastics medal about as far as it will take her. While commercial enough to go the distance, Rauch’s caustic character sketch feels similarly over-stretched, landing easy laughs over and over with the same joke: a twisted take on the sort of America’s sweetheart even Tonya Harding couldn’t tarnish.
A true gymnast would appreciate the virtually impossible balancing act of trying to make audiences like a character as unrepentantly self-absorbed as Hope, a pony-tailed blonde brat whom we meet masturbating to tape of her 2004 Olympics win — in which she snatched the bronze medal from the brink of a career-ending ankle injury. Not every actress can handle the task as expertly as, say, Reese Witherspoon did in “Legally Blonde”; nor could most directors sell Rauch’s relatively thin range as effectively as first-time helmer Bryan Buckley does. Here, the trick amounts to embracing just how off-putting the character’s love-to-hate personality can be.
To put it bluntly, Hope is “a spoiled bitch,” as it takes her impossibly patient single father (Gary Cole) nearly the entire movie to tell her: Within the film’s first reel, she crushes and snorts allergy medicine, excoriates her dad, steals random kids’ birthday-card money from the mail, bullies a friendly Sbarro employee and brushes off an aspiring young gymnast, all while sporting the same three-inch bangs, teenybopper ponytail and red-white-and-blue warmup suit she wore a dozen years earlier. She needs a serious attitude adjustment, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from such films, warm-fuzzy redemption is on its way.
Tipping its hand a bit too early, the script (which Rauch penned with husband Winston) indicates exactly how things will go when Hope receives a post-suicidal letter from Coach P. (Christine E. Abraham), the staunch Russian supervisor who boosted her to victory a dozen years earlier. In broken English, the old battle ax dangles a $500,000 reward if her former student agrees to carry on and coach 16-year-old Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), whom the gymnastics community considers America’s next great hope.
Naturally, Hope despises the idea that someone from her own hometown — folksy Amherst, Ohio, where the film was actually shot — might steal her glory. So, in a montage that falls short of its comic potential, Hope instructs Maggie to spend her workout sessions “visualizing” her maneuvers (instead of actually practicing them); practically pimps her out to the nearest horny teenager she can find (an inversion of Coach P.’s “no boys” rule); and takes her around to the unhealthiest junk-food establishments in town until the poor girl develops a beer gut. (Hope’s own diet of hamburgers and Fanta Orange soda suggests that perhaps a heavier-set actress would have conveyed how rough life has been since the character quit gymnastics.)
While Hope cruelly sets about trying to sabotage the absurdly compliant young athlete’s chances, two guys appear on the scene with other plans. The first is the sweet, shy gym manager (Thomas Middleditch) who’s had a crush on Hope since her pre-Olympic days, and the other is the cocky, conquest-seeking gold-medalist (Sebastian Stan) who deflowered her a decade earlier, right after her big victory. The two characters are a study in opposites, each motivated to see Maggie succeed, both hoping to win Hope over in the process — though only one will have the privilege, resulting in what’s sure to be the funniest (not to mention most athletic) onscreen hookup of the year. If sex scenes won medals, this one would take home the gold.
Few directors have had more practical experience coming into their debut feature than Buckley, who’s directed more Super Bowl commercials than there have been Super Bowls, as well as the Oscar-nominated short “Asad.” He’s more confident than most in terms of how to light, shoot and cut a first-time comedy, and though no one would accuse “The Bronze” of not being funny, it somehow manages not to be funny often enough.
Though the improv-pioneering Duplass brothers produced, the comedy seems to stick close to its script. Like the attention-hogging character she plays, Rauch has given Hope nearly all the good lines, while expecting the rest of the cast to set up her outrageous, off-color retorts, which grows grating and a bit one-note over time. Even so, by relying on physical comedy, “Silicon Valley” star Middleditch manages to hold his own, more than earning his character’s “Twitchy” nickname as he milks the awkward fellow’s facial tic for all it’s worth.
Still, there remain long gaps between laughs in the 107-minute film. An experienced distributor might find a way to tighten the Sundance cut by another 10 minutes, while using ADR and other post-production tricks to inject humor into the stretches where the script isn’t even trying to be funny. Then again, perhaps this is the sort of film that gets more amusing on repeat viewing.
It already seems as if Buckley and the Rauch couple crack up at the very idea of the character, which imagines what kind of personality someone as adorable as pocket-sized Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson might have when the cameras aren’t rolling. There are almost two separate concepts operating here: The first riffs on Andy Warhol’s old “15 minutes of fame” theory, speculating how glory-seekers cope once the world’s attention moves on, while the other pokes fun at anyone who derives self-importance from second-rate (or third-place) achievement. But it takes perfectionism to pull off the latter joke, whereas “The Bronze” deserves one of those feel-good green “participant” ribbons they hand out at politically correct competitions.