That’s fu**in’ gymnastics!
In the past year, I’ve become a full-fledged gymnastics fan. I began working for a company that provides year-round coverage for dozens of gymnastics events, and discovered that I enjoyed watching most of them. The Bronze, a new comedy that premiered at Sundance 2015, takes an R-rated approach in exploring this world of bright smiles and dazzling athletic feats.
Hope Ann Greggory (Melissa Rauch, who also co-wrote the screenplay) is an American gymnast who won a bronze medal at the (fictional) 2004 Rome Olympic Games. She was favored to be a champion, and her failure to achieve what was a lifelong expectation and goal has clearly had a lasting effect on her. Behind the sweet veneer of a good girl gymnast is a foul-mouthed young woman, now many years past her Olympic glory. Through a series of events, Hope ends up being forced to coach a promising gymnast named Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson) from her hometown.
Maggie is as sweet as Hope is sour, so much so that she doesn’t even notice when Hope is putting her down. The gimmick of a potty mouth on someone who is supposed to be all sweetness and light would wear thin if it were the only card the film had to play. Fortunately, it isn’t. Underneath Hope’s language and attitude that put grizzled crab fishermen to shame, there is always the presence of a human being rather than just a caricature. This is a tough balance beam to walk (hush, you know you love puns), and kudos to Rauch for successfully writing and performing the character in this way. Richardson does an admirable job of making Maggie more than just a stereotypically perky gymnast, delivering lines like “cursing hurts God’s heart” with complete sincerity. In my year of being immersed in the gymnastics world, I have met both Hopes and Maggies, and loved watching this dynamic play out.
In addition to the comedic set pieces, The Bronze also has a very sweet and engaging love story. Ben (Thomas Middleditch), whom Hope refers to as “Twitchy” because of his involuntary facial twitches, runs the gym where Hope is training Maggie. Ben is clearly smitten with Hope, and she gets her kicks out of mocking him mercilessly. Modern romantic comedies are not my thing. I dip into them every once in awhile, so I’m not painting with too broad a brush when I say that I generally can’t stand them. Most of them turn otherwise interesting or decent actors into bland figures with no personality. The “comedy” portion of romantic comedies of the past few decades seems to mostly consist of pretty people doing lame prat falls or getting unconvincingly tongue-tied.
In this romantic story, we have a woman who doesn’t care about what most people think of her, and a young man who is ceaselessly upbeat in the face of her derision. Ben/Twitchy isn’t oblivious to Hope’s constant personal jabs at him, but he takes it all in stride. What makes this believable is that he has known Hope since before she was famous, and thus is still viewing her as the person whom he knows exists underneath all of her angry snark. Again, this sounds like a tough character to sell, but Middleditch (superb on HBO’s Silicon Valley) makes it seem effortless. It helps that I was already a fan of him from his TV work and appearances on numerous podcasts, but I think I would have fallen in love even if this were my introduction. As with last year’s Trainwreck, it pays off to have actors with actual comedic chops playing the leads in a romantic comedy storyline. Again, the comedy portion of that genre generally eludes more straight-laced actors pulled from network dramas.
The weakest element of the film is the constant abuse that Hope levels at her father (Gary Cole). We’re given a reason for this, but it doesn’t quite account for the unceasing levels of vitriol, which far surpass the simple bitchiness she exhibits elsewhere. Cole does his best as the downtrodden doormat-who-cares, but the scenes largely fail to elicit the humor for which they’re aiming. Much of the problem comes from a misjudgment in tone and editing (which admittedly plagues the film elsewhere). In the more dramatic scenes, however, the father-daughter dynamic bursts to life. These scenes make up a large portion of the film, and thus create a considerable problem if they don’t work for you.
This review comes after The Bronze has had an incredibly disappointing showing at the box office. A big portion of the blame here can likely be laid at the feet of those in charge of marketing. A number of people to whom I mentioned the film hadn’t heard anything about it. I’m not going to claim that it’s an absolute masterpiece, but it certainly deserves better treatment than it’s gotten thus far. If you are in the mood for an indie comedy that takes chances and dabbles in absurdity, then you’ll likely find plenty to enjoy here. You’ll get bonus fun points if you know anything about gymnastics, as there are some great insider references.
Pro tip: stay for Hope’s rap over the end credits. I know that having a Midwestern white girl do a rap sounds hack, but damned if Rauch doesn’t make it soar. I annoyed and entertained my co-worker the next day by performing it.