[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The Bronze opens today.]
Director Bryan Buckley and screenwriters Melissa Rauch and Winston Rauch must be bowled over by the idea of someone adorable saying horrible things because that’s the joke in The Bronze. It’s really the only joke—someone who looks sweet and innocent spouts vulgar language and is mean to people. It also offers an easy redemption arc because the movie lives in a fantasyland where people decide to tolerate and embrace an awful, washed-up has-been. For some reason, Buckley thinks this story requires almost two hours to tell even thought we’ve seen it before and done far better. Perhaps it’s because he can’t decide on a tone or he can’t get enough of Rauch’s shtick (she also stars), but The Bronze is a far from a winner. It’s not even good enough to compete.
Gymnist Hope Annabelle Gregory (Rauch) pulled off a miracle at the 2004 Olympics, and her ability to do her routine on a busted Achilles heel earned a Bronze medal and the adulation of the country. Ten years later, Hope is bitterness incarnate, and goes around her small town of Amhearst, Ohio being terrible to her kindly father Stan (Gary Cole) and the townspeople. When her estranged coach and mentor dies Hope receives a letter promising $500,000 if she teaches her coach’s star pupil Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson). Driven by money, Hope eventually finds herself warming up to Maggie and the gym’s sweet, timid employee, “Twitchy” (Thomas Middleditch).
The Bronze is based on the premise of “What if Kerri Strug turned out to be a horrible person following her memorable victory at the 1996 Summer Olympics?” (Wikipedia says Strug’s post-Olympics life has gone pretty well). This premise is suited for a five-minute Saturday Night Live or Funny or Die sketch at best, and it’s certainly not enough to fill a movie that’s almost two hours long, especially since Buckley and his writers have nothing else to add. They’re content to go through predictable motions but keeping it “edgy” because she says things like “clit jizz.” It’s supposed to be funny because of the juxtaposition of someone cute being foul-mouthed, which is already a tired set-up. It’s one-time shock value, and the movie is entirely downhill from its amusing opening scene.
Perhaps realizing that you can’t have the high-pitched Rauch behave this way for an entire film (although it certainly tries), we’re then forced to deal with a redemption arc where everyone is such a dumb hick that they’re willing to keep giving Hope free stuff despite her shitty attitude. I can believe that Stan is such a doting single parent that he wouldn’t properly discipline his daughter, but I don’t know how Maggie and Twitchy (the latter being Hope’s cruel nickname because of his nervous ticks) could stand her for more than an hour at best. Rauch doesn’t have the charm to keep Hope compelling, and the movie is unwilling to tear down its protagonist in any way. Instead, it coasts on the misguided belief that Hope’s juxtaposition is too funny to ignore and her slow redemption is moving enough that we’ll root for her.
This leads to a tonal mess where Buckley doesn’t seem to know if he’s making a raunchy comedy, a reality-based character piece, or something that’s outright absurdist. He wants it all, and he’s pretty poor at all of it. Buckley has made a bunch of Super Bowl commercials, so it’s surprising that someone whose past work requires providing a quick, concise tone has directed such a lethargic, meandering, indecisive feature. Again, the premise of The Bronze seems suited to something much shorter, and perhaps it would have made for a catchy ad where Strug parodied her image.
Instead, this mediocre concept is a 115-minute production that can’t get enough of its simplistic protagonist and her tired personality. If I wanted to see a long movie about a jerk, has-been, champion-turned-coach teaching a sweet, naïve prodigy, I’d watch Kingpin. But here at Sundance, where quirk can reign supreme, The Bronze is content to parade its bratty princess around a sad, little kingdom, and expects us to laugh at every insult that comes out of her childlike voice.