HEY, WANNA SEE a sweatsuit-clad gymnast masturbating to her own highlight reel?
That's how The Bronze opens, so it's as good a place as any to start a review of The Bronze. How you feel about that opening shot is probably a pretty good indication of how you'll feel about the film as a whole—it certainly does set the tone. The Bronze is good old-fashioned shock comedy, set in and around the world of professional gymnastics, helmed by a defiantly unlikeable protagonist who does lots of things that chipper little blonde girls aren't supposed to do—the aforementioned diddling; lines of pain medicine; anonymous drunken sex with strangers; soda that isn't diet.
Hope Annabelle Greggory (Melissa Rauch) is a washed-up gymnast best known for winning a bronze medal at the "Toronto Games" (the Olympic Committee being a bit litigious about their iconography). It was an "America's sweetheart" moment, a ripped-from-the-Olympics scene so familiar that The Bronze barely needed to parody this part: Hope broke her foot after a difficult landing, hobbled off the mat, and then went on to perform a medal-winning routine on her broken foot. America weeps, cheers, then immediately forgets about her when a new sweetheart comes along.
The Bronze is about what happened next: When Hope returns home, past her prime, unable to perform, and clinging desperately to a legacy that everyone else is definitely starting to forget. Foul-mouthed and demanding, she lives with her long-suffering dad (Gary Cole), scarfs down freebies at the local mall's food court, and never leaves the house in anything but her signature sweatsuit, bangs hairsprayed into a perfect shelf. It's not particularly fresh territory (Hope is like a tiny blonde Kenny Powers), but Rauch, who also co-wrote the film, is great—entitled, arrogant, with hints of humanity peeking out between the cracks. And with an admirably extensive repertoire of creative ways to tell people to go fuck themselves.
Thomas Middleditch plays Ben, AKA "Twitchy," Hope's love interest. (He does, in fact, have a twitch.) Middleditch is best known for his starring role in Silicon Valley, where his character is so understated and deadpan that it can be easy to overlook how devastatingly funny he is. Here, as a prudish man who really loves gymnastics, it's more obvious than ever that he's one of the best comic actors working today.
Hope's protégée Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), whom Hope is training for a big contest, is also beautifully cast, full of an unaffected natural teenaged exuberance that's rarely captured onscreen.
There's some genuinely funny stuff in The Bronze, but there's also some cringe-y stuff, and some maudlin stuff, and some stuff that never should've made it out of the first draft. This poor, put-upon narrative has far too much work to do: redeeming its unlikeable narrator, commenting on how high-profile sports chew up athletes and spit them out, moralizing about how life doesn't always give us exactly what we want. (All while shocking us with its profound irreverence, let's not forget.) The film wants, for example, to talk about the destructive pressures gymnastics places on women to conform to a certain body type: thin, almost childlike. But it doesn't quite know how to handle the subject, blundering in the direction of smart commentary but settling for some easy boob jokes. With a worse cast, The Bronze would be intolerable. With this one, it's merely average—which, given how hard it's trying to be outrageously edgy, might be the worst thing of all.