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(Editor’s note: The following review was for an unfinished festival cut of The Bronze.)
The opening moments of The Bronze make for quite a bait-and-switch, inasmuch as the intriguing comedy they suggest ends up being replaced by a frequently shrill, almost completely unfunny stab at transgression that falls woefully short. But let’s back up for a second. The film starts with a rousing show of the American spirit through the ultimate triumph of Hope Annabelle Greggory (Melissa Rauch), who at the 2004 Olympics in Rome (rather than Athens) overcame a devastating ankle injury to take home a bronze medal in gymnastics. She returned to her hometown of Amherst, Ohio, a hero, an inspiration to young girls the world over. Cut to a decade later, where she’s furiously pleasuring herself to her Olympic triumph before kicking off her day with a few lines of crushed nasal decongestant.
This sequence, and the following early scenes in which she steals money from her father’s (Gary Cole) mail van and verbally abuses Sbarro employees for failing to honor her celebrity, suggest a black comedy about a woeful idealist who hasn’t been able to let go of her one shining moment well into her twenties. But soon, The Bronze shows its true colors. They’re red, white, blue, and sadistic, in ascending order. When Hope’s ex-coach commits suicide, she leaves Hope the promise of a $500,000 inheritance, if Hope will continue training Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), a wildly talented young ingénue who threatens to usurp Hope’s aggressively held throne as the local hero of Amherst.
The film recalls other (better) stories about developmentally arrested women clinging to past glories like Drop Dead Gorgeous or Young Adult, but The Bronze lacks both the regional charm of the former and the bite of the latter, though it very much aspires to be both. The lion’s share of the trouble lies in the film’s script, co-written by Rauch and her husband Winston, which fills Hope with an endless volley of four-letter conjugations that’re intended to shock and instead just fall flat. There’s a certain eloquence that vulgarity requires, and The Bronze mistakes the loud spewing of bon mots like “clit jizz” for actual jokes more often than not. Hope’s fashioned as an anti-hero, but instead comes off as a sociopath; before long, she’s introducing the devoutly Catholic Maggie to the joys of sex, overeating, and marijuana, all so that Hope can still have a guaranteed parking spot and free pizza.
And it’s a shame, because Rauch is all-in on this performance. Although the film’s never clear on how Hope’s supposed to be read, at least until it vehemently demands that audiences feel for her without ever providing much of a reason, Rauch volleys one profane outburst after the next with the gusto of a comedian willing to go to any lengths for a laugh. Hope’s childlike demeanor is less cute than the put-on of a functioning addict who’s learned how to game people to her ends with far too much skill over the years. In her interactions with her dad or with Ben (Thomas Middleditch), the gym owner who Hope still knows by his high school nickname of “Twitchy,” it becomes clear that Hope doesn’t understand or particularly like most people. She just knows that everybody used to give her everything she wanted, and suddenly they’ve stopped for the most part, and she’s the only one who can’t see why. Rauch gives herself a thoroughly unlikable, uneven role to play, but at least she gets the relative best out of it.
“Uneven” is actually a rather adept description of The Bronze as a whole. Director Bryan Buckley doesn’t seem to know if the film is best handled as a caustic character study, heartfelt melodrama, bawdy sex comedy, or feel-good underdog story, so depending on the scene the film is one or more of those things at once. Little fits, from the condescending tone the film takes toward Maggie and her equally devout mom (Cecily Strong), to the tentative courtship between Hope and Ben, to Hope’s on-off chemistry with a scummy U.S. team coach from her olden days, played by Sebastian Stan in an embarrassing fit of hamming. There’s a genuine heart to some moments, particularly a slow zoom in on Hope at a key moment when she’s about to lose everything she’s ever held dear. And there’s a sex scene that likely won’t make it to theaters in its screened form, with some of the most ridiculous acrobatics witnessed since Team America.
After a while, though, the film’s uneven tone becomes grating, and after an even longer while (the film clocks in at almost two hours, which is well beyond unnecessary), it’s genuinely unpleasant. The film attempts to identify with its many misfits, but ultimately either sells them short or actively savages them. And then there’s nasty, vicious Hope, whose early abuses are all both forgiven and forgotten by the film when it’s time for her to learn lessons about growing up. To a point, the film teases that maybe it won’t end so easily, that maybe any of the awful things she does will pay off somehow. But The Bronze is so satisfied with its own winking crassness that it lets epithets constitute everything it has to say. Between that and the film’s scene-by-scene tonal shifts, what could’ve been an off-kilter curiosity curdles into a dull roar of disappointment.
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