Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review: "The Bronze"

Tonya Harding meets Tracy Flick from “Election” meets “Fargo” Chief Marge Gunderson -- that’s our first impression of Hope Annabelle Greggory.

Melissa Rauch stars in and co-wrote (with husband Winston) this comedy about a has-been Olympic gymnast that aims to set a new standard in foul-mouthed raunch.

It’s not as outwardly crude as, say, the “Hangover” movies. But Hope Annabelle -- don’t you dare short her a name! -- may just be the most purely nasty protagonist we’ve seen onscreen in a while.

Heck, even the lead in “Bad Santa” finds his mushy heart in the end. When she arrives at her version of the Niceville depot, Hope Annabelle still calls a guy with a facial tic “Twitchy” -- and this is the fellow she’s in love with.

Directed by Bryan Buckley, the movie walks a careful line to keep the character from becoming too unlikeable … and sometimes falters from that line. We’re caught between laughing at Hope Annabelle and cringing at her hateful antics. It works in stretches, until it doesn’t.

Rauch is a hoot, and I admired the way she could bring to a life a character so defined by utter bile. I went to college for two years in Oberlin, a few clicks south of Amherst, so I can attest she got the pinched-vowels accent and big-fish-small-pond chutzpah down pat.

The setup is HA (sorry, tired of spelling it out) was a darling of the 2004 Olympics as a teen gymnast in the Kerri Strug mold. She came back from a torn Achilles to land the U.S. team a bronze medal. It earned her the requisite 15 minutes of fame, a tour with “Dancing with the Stars” and the seemingly eternal gratitude of her hometown of Amherst, Ohio.

HA has reacted to this generous outpouring with … an incredible sense of self-importance and delusion. Now 30ish and long washed up from competition, she still wanders around town dressed in her red, white and blue jumpsuit from 2004, milking the local retailers for free Sbarro’s, sneakers, sundaes and weed.

She swears and tosses insults like a dyspeptic sailor, and nobody ever really takes offense. I guess when you’re the biggest star to ever come out of a small town -- as in “Welcome to Our City, Home of So-and-So” -- people will tolerate a mountain of abuse.

Pointy-chinned and petite -- deceptively so, as we’ll see -- HA has got the immovable blonde bangs and permanent sneer of a spoiled brat who never grew up. She still lives with her long-suffering single dad (Gary Cole), a postal worker who sacrificed to raise a champion. Now the champ breaks into his mail truck to steal cash out of envelopes and makes a pretense of looking for a job.

When her tough old Slavic coach dies, HA receives a letter saying she’ll receive a large inheritance -- but only if she coaches the town’s rising young gymnastics star, “Mighty” Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson, impossibly pert) in the upcoming (fictional) Toronto Olympics. She’s torn, since if successful the ingénue’s star will eclipse her own.

Riding along is Ben (Thomas Middleditch), who runs the decaying old gym and clearly has a long-simmering thing for HA, which she returns with contempt and later with… slightly less contempt.

The film wisely keeps the actual gymnastics stuff to a bare minimum, with stunt doubles as needed. Sebastian Stan plays a smarmy old Olympics flame-turned-rival in the coaching game.

Speaking of body doubles, they pretty obviously use some for a crazily gymnastic sex scene that seems like they’re trying to do a human version of the one with puppets from “Team America: World Police.” I think this is intentional, though, with the apparent decoys adding to the comedy quotient.

For the record, Rauch has said in interviews that’s really her. But the bounty of conveniently placed shadows, hair dangling over faces and cutaways to shoulders-and-up closeups of Rauch leave me a Doubting (Peeping?) Thomas.

In the end I admire the pluck of “The Bronze” more than the movie itself. It’s heartening to see a movie go really out there in tone. It’s better when they stick the landing.

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