Thursday, March 17, 2016

Sour Grapes: Melissa Rauch makes mean and shrill look funny in "The Bronze"

The Bronze (2016)
108 min., rated R.

Like Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa,” Cameron Diaz’s “Bad Teacher,” and Jason Bateman as a children’s spelling bee saboteur in “Bad Words,” Melissa Rauch plays a foul-mouthed, washed-up Olympic gymnast in “The Bronze,” an acrid and admittedly funny but simultaneously uneven black comedy for which mainstream audiences may not be prepared. Best known for her perky work on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” Rauch pulls no punches in the script she co-wrote with husband Winston Rauch, even as the piece-of-work creation she plays verges on one-note and just plain horrible. It comes as a shock to see the actress this prickly edged and uncompromised in her first lead role, but if "The Bronze" works at all and there's a reason worth feeling bad for laughing, it's because of Rauch’s daring, go-for-broke comic performance.

Ever since she tore her Achilles tendon and then won the Olympic bronze medal against the Russians in 2004, Hope Ann Gregory (Melissa Rauch) has seen herself as a star in her hometown of Amherst, Ohio. Never taking off her U.S.A. warm-up suit, she lives as if no time has passed, living at home with mailman father Stan (Gary Cole) and still receiving an allowance. Instead of looking for a job, Hope wastes money at the mall, or milks her third-place stardom for a free lunch at Sbarro, and steals money from letters on her father’s mail route. When Hope's estranged mentor Coach P. (Christine Abrahamsen) dies, she receives a letter that offers her $500,000 under one condition: coach 16-year-old gymnastics prodigy Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), a virginal, good-natured ball of enthusiasm, and take her to the Toronto Games. At first, Hope stops at nothing to sabotage Maggie, whether that means fattening her up with burgers and shakes or lacing her protein shake with marijuana, but might have a change of heart when it means getting that money and competing against cocky gold-and-silver winner Lance Tucker (Sebastian Stan). Hope will always think highly of herself as a “poster child for miracles,” but maybe the awkward gym manager Ben “Twitchy” (Thomas Middleditch), an old acquaintance with a facial tic, will thaw out her heart.

This being director Bryan Buckley’s feature debut, “The Bronze” is technically standard-issue, as far as his direction goes with getting all the small-town details right, but it really announces Melissa Rauch as a performer to watch. Make no mistake, her Hope Gregory is an insufferable pain in the ass. Very far away from her Bernadette Rostenkowski on the small screen, Rauch really goes for it as this nasally, entitled, delusional, unpleasant (and even a little dim) woman-child who deserves a slap in the face. When we first meet the petulant brat, she is in bed, masturbating to her televised triumph on VHS. Upon finishing, Hope snorts a line of Claritin. She tells her dad to stop treating her like she’s five years old, even though she acts like an unexorcised Regan MacNeil. For a large chunk of the film, the viewer laughs at how awful she is and cannot believe most of the vulgar monstrosities that come out of her mouth (“Absence makes the dick grow harder,” she tells Maggie and her new boyfriend). There comes a point, though, where Hope must get her comeuppance, and it sort of comes.

For the first half-hour or so, “The Bronze” is set in one shrill, mean-spirited key, but it’d be a lie if one said it wasn’t funny. Fortunately, the supporting cast is given enough to do in leavening Hope’s venom. Gary Cole is quite good as Hope’s widower dad, particularly in one scene where he finally gives it to his daughter in a Toronto hotel room. Thomas Middleditch’s “Twitchy” will obviously fall for Hope by the last frame, even if it only cursorily convinces, but he’s a charming guy in his own right with enough of a backbone, and their date in the mall after-hours is the film’s sweetest moment. Haley Lu Richardson, whom the film is a little cruel to as the talented Maggie, is a cheery standout, and a well-cast, slick-looking Sebastian Stan is a co-participant in cinema’s most uproarious, intricately choreographed sex scene between gymnasts. Brazenly appalling and independently flavored, “The Bronze” doesn’t adeptly intermingle pathos with its nasty humor to compete with the best dark comedies out there that also have unlikable protagonists. As burnt-black as a comedy can get and still be as palatable without selling out, this is a sour and mean little movie with teeth and a sliver of sweetness. Hope isn’t going to grow up or become a nicer person overnight, but her sharp tongue is hard to resist anyway.

Grade: B - 

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