Going to the mat
In The Bronze we first see Hope Annabel Greggory (Melissa Rauch) in a montage of home videos as her doting father Stan (Gary Cole) coaxes her through her basic gymnastic exercises, beginning when she’s barely old enough to walk. Then home video gives way to network coverage of 17-year-old Hope at the 2004 Games in Rome, playing through a crippling ankle injury to battle her way to a bronze medal with a 9.8. (By “Games” we’re obviously meant to think “Olympics,” though the 2004 Summer Olympics were in Athens—and in fact, the Olympics are never mentioned at all in the movie.)
Then it’s the present day, with Hope sitting in her garage bedroom in Amherst, Ohio, masturbating to a replay of her third-place triumph in Rome. Hope is pushing 30 now, and she’s a foul-mouthed little small-town diva, playing her long-ago celebrity for all it’s worth. She robs her dad’s mail truck, plundering the letters he’s supposed to be delivering for any cash she can find, then never paying for anything anywhere in town—not even the pot she smokes. She’s mean, cruel, selfish and sarcastic, with a mouth like an inverted barbed-wire “V” and a voice like a hacksaw cutting through wrought iron. Fifteen minutes into The Bronze we’re cringing at the thought of having to spend another hour and 25 minutes with this horrid person.
The script by Melissa Rauch and her writing-and-life-partner Winston Rauch eventually throws Hope a curve: Her longtime coach, from whom she’s been estranged for years, dies and leaves her half a million dollars—if and only if Hope will agree to coach the latest Amherst gymnastics phenom, Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson) through the Games in Toronto. Hope has a decision to make: She can sabotage the kid’s training, because Maggie idolizes her and will do whatever she says, or she can play it straight and take the chance that Maggie with a gold medal will outshine her once and for all.
A strange thing begins to happen. This little monster starts to look human to us, even likeable. Melissa Rauch, of TV’s Big Bang Theory, lets little flashes of humanity poke through the bitter crust, as Hope’s love of the game, long sidelined after that career-ending injury, begins struggling to the surface. Hope even thaws toward Ben (Thomas Middleditch), the gym manager she’s known since childhood and always called “Twitchy” because of his involuntary facial tics, even though he’s long cherished an unrequited crush on her.
Director Bryan Buckley, making his theatrical feature debut, walks a thin line between The Bronze’s twin poles of Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy and something softer, sweeter and more real. Melissa Rauch plays on the same balance beam, and she nails the landing. The Bronze, like Hope herself, is a diamond in the rough.
A word of warning to any parents with budding little gymnasts of their own: This isn’t a movie for your kids. It’s profane, raunchy and dirty-funny. But it’s also sweet and warm, and when it ends with Doris Day on the soundtrack, it has earned that warm glow honestly. Then Doris Day gives way to a hilariously nasty rap, and the sweetness gets submerged once again. But it’s still there, just under the surface.