Sports movies nearly always get it wrong, insisting that victories represent moral triumphs of sportsmanship and self-sacrifice while ignoring factors true sports fans have come to accept, if not curse, such as luck, raging ego and cheating.
The arena of sports is no different than any other human activity although you’d never know this is you grow up watching Hollywood write the scripts.
“The Bronze” is a sports movie that actually gets many things right although not enough to represent a game changer. Too much exaggeration for comic effect and a carelessness with its characters bring its own level of unreality to the film.
But the film does do to the concept of sports heroism what “Bad Santa” did for Santa Claus: you don’t want to put your faith in either one.
The title may be the first tip off. Bronze goes to a third place finisher at the Olympics. It’s a medal, all right, and certainly adds to those all-important team totals. But no one throws a parade for a third-place finisher.
In the case of 27-year-old Hope Ann Greggory, played by “The Big Bang Theory’s” Melissa Rauch, the bronze did represent a moral victory of sorts. In the women’s gymnastics finals she ruptured her Achilles but summoned the physical courage to finish her strongest event, the uneven bars, to achieve medal status.
(Unable to use, or more likely afford, Olympics’ logos, the movie never declares what its international competitions are but strongly hints these are international games that come every four years.)
Her career effectively over and unable to adjust to what one might call a normal life, Hope has spent the last decade resting on what laurels she has, becoming a petulant brat, small-time thief and foul-mouthed celebrity in her small town of Amherst, Ohio.
Milking her former glory for freebies at the mall food court and drinks from anyone who’ll buy them at the bar — if necessary, she’s not above exchanging sexual favors for those drinks — Hope, who still goes out daily in a cute teen ponytail and USA warmup suit, is like a Wheaties box athlete subversively drawn by a Mad magazine caricaturist.
She makes life a living hell for her supportive dad, Stan (Gary Cole), a mail carrier who still believes in his “little girl,” and bristles at the mention of the town’s newest gymnastic sensation, 16-year-old Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson).
When through force of convoluted circumstances she gets an offer she’d love to refuse but can’t, she signs on to coach Maggie for a huge payday after the championships in Toronto. Only her unorthodox training includes a high-caloric junk-food diet, hooking Maggie up with a boy — any horny boy will do — and throwing pot into her energy drink.
Yes, she’s out to sabotage Maggie until her ex- — and gold- and silver-winning gymnast — Lance (Sebastian Stan), rides into town to snatch Maggie away to prepare her properly for Toronto. Then it becomes war between these two and she starts training Maggie in earnest.
The energetic and boisterously innocent Maggie makes a fine foil for the shallow, vile, ironically named Hope, wallowing in her self-pity. Indeed, the movie, which was written by the lead actress and her co-writer/husband Winston Rauch, loves setting up contrasts with all its characters.
Which begins with Hope, looking like her 16-year-old self yet with a foul temperament more suited to Melissa McCarthy. Then there’s Hope and a dad straight out of a ‘60s-era sitcom; Hope and a young gym assistant, Ben (Thomas Middleditch), afflicted with mild Tourette’s but with a serious crush on Hope; and Hope and Lance, each operating on different levels of cynicism and greed.
The film doesn’t do enough with its biggest contrast, however, that of Hope existing in what appears to be a highly conservative, religious community. For instance, Maggie initially doesn’t take to Hope’s obscene tirades because “cursing hurts God’s heart.” Meanwhile, Ben refuses to bed the girl of his dreams because he’s “saving himself for marriage.”
How Hope operates in such an environment is unclear especially when the movie makes amply clear she is nasty to everyone and highly promiscuous — oh hell, let’s call it for what it is, she’s a slut.
On that score, Rauch and Stan engage in one of cinema’s most imaginative sex scenes ever, one that turns sex into a gymnastic sport where these two transform a hotel bedroom into a free-exercise tumble of gyrating naked bodies and topsy-turvy positions. While not exactly erotic, it is an eye-opener.
Unfortunately, the screenplay trivializes its characters to sharpen its contrasts and takes constant shortcuts to laughs. The film’s director, longtime commercial ace Bryan Buckley, isn’t always able to smooth these disparate parts into a satisfying comedy so there’s a clunkiness to the movie as it unfolds.
The third act feels mostly contrived and not entirely credible given that one huge character transition must transpire off-screen without an accompanying explanation.
One remarkable thing about the two actresses though: Both display considerable gymnastic skill, enough to make Maggie’s run for the gold seem highly plausible. Along with her athletic prowess, Richardson, coming off the little-seen but winning comedy “The Young Kieslowski,” has great comic timing and a gentle sexiness that marks her as a newcomer to watch.
“The Bronze” like its heroine finishes as an also-ran in the comedy sweepstakes, relying too much on potty-mouth dialogue, repetitive gags and telegraphed punchlines. The Rauchs had a good idea for a satirical sports comedy, but continually stretch characters and situations out of any reasonable shape and hit the same notes over and over again.
Yet one can only hope more sports movies will take the film’s lead and treat athletics, if not comically, at least more realistically when it comes to winning and losing. I’m not holding my breath though.
Opens: March 18, 2016 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: Stage 6 Films, Duplass Brothers Productions
Cast: Melissa Rauch, Gary Cole, Thomas Middleditch, Sebastian Stan, Haley Lu Richardson, Cecily Strong, Dale Raoul
Director: Bryan Buckley
Screenwriters: Melissa Rauch, Winston Rauch
Producer: Stephanie Langhoff
Executive producers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Bryan Buckley, Melissa Rauch, Winston Rauch, M. Charles Cuddy
Director of photography: Scott Henriksen
Production designer: Daniel Skinner
Music: Andrew Feinstein, John Nau
Costume designer: Michelle Martini
Editor: Jay Nelson
R rating, 100 minutes