PARK CITY – It's hard to believe that there's any downside to being on a giant mega-hit sitcom that runs for a decade, but if you're someone who dedicated your life to acting, a big hit could be a genuine trap. If anyone knows that, Melissa Rauch does.
Melissa Rauch joined the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” in the third season, playing a character who fell in love with one of the series regulars, and she has become an indispensable part of the ensemble. I didn't pay close attention to the re-negotiations over salary, but I know the cast got some big giant raises. One of the things that affords you, if you're one of those actors on that show, is a chance to push some personal projects into the spotlight.
Rauch took advantage of that and, with her co-writer and husband Winston Rauch, and she seems to be well aware of how people see her when she plays Bernadette. She crafted a role for herself that was guaranteed to generate discussion and demonstrate that she can play more than one character. Overall, I think Rauch gives a dedicated performance here, playing perhaps the most unlikable female lead since “Young Adult.” One difference, though… “Young Adult” is a descent into despair for the main character who knows full well that she has already peaked, while “The Bronze” desperately wants to redeem its lead.
“The Bronze” tells the story of Hope Annabelle Greggory, a gymnast who spent her whole life training for the 2004 Olympics. During her routine, she tore her Achilles, and her promising career was apparently stopped cold. She managed to rally, though, for her final event, and even with one leg out of commission, she was able to earn a bronze medal. It become a major media moment, and even with the injury, things look promising for Hope.
Then we flash forward to find Hope alone in bed, rewatching her tape of the Olympics and her victory, vigorously masturbating to what was obviously the high point of her entire life. Her single father Stan (Gary Cole) is still doing everything for her, and Hope appears to have stopped emotional development of any kind at the precise moment she hurt herself, as if her injury somehow broke her ability to mature. She's a terrible person, snorting chopped up off-brand Sudafed, having sex with anyone who even glances at her, stealing money out of her father's mail truck, and they go out of their way to show just how little she cares for anyone or anything. She's just coasting along on whatever fumes are still hanging about, and she seems to be on a crash course for disaster.
It doesn't help that Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), a young gymnast, is now training with Hope's old coach, and it looks like Maggie could go all the way and maybe even surpass Hope's accomplishments. When the coach dies, though, she leaves behind a will that will give Hope $500,000. All she has to do is step up and become Maggie's new coach, working with her all the way to the Olympics. She doesn't even have to win. She just has to get Maggie to the competition.
That's kind of like asking a fat guy who hasn't eaten in a week to deliver pizza to someone. She's being asked to help someone who could take away whatever fame she still has, replacing her completely in the hearts of the people of Amherst. Even so, the offer of the money proves irresistible, and Hope has to agree to help Maggie. But can she really do it, or will jealousy win the day?
In the broad strokes, I think “The Bronze” is okay. I laughed at some things, I sat stone-faced during some things that don't work, and at the end, I could tell what I was supposed to feel, but it was more like I'm being ordered to feel this way instead of the film actually earning it. The film's biggest problem is that they do such a good job of making Hope a miserable piece of garbage at the start of the film that her redemption, spurred both by Maggie and by Hope's burgeoning feelings about Ben (Thomas Middleditch), whose father owned the gym where Hope trained, is wholly unconvincing. She transforms because the screenplay forces her to do so instead of creating an organic way for it to happen. A good example is that snorting of the make-shift speed. It's communicated clearly at the start of the film that this is what she does all day. At a certain point in the film, though, that evaporates completely as if they just forgot about it. She just stops. No mention is made of it, and it doesn't seem to have any impact on Hope one way or another.
Every since “Seinfeld,” it seems like we have been pushing into what can only be described as “sociopathic comedy.” I am a big fan of this school of comedy because it's like a tightrope act. Look at Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He took the George persona from “Seinfeld,” which was obviously based on him, and then he pushed it further. There are things that the Larry David on the show has done that would be unforgivable in real life, but it's clear that this is a heightened extreme version of the real Larry. You could draw a line from these shows to things like “Jackass,” “It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” “The League,” “Eastbound and Down,” “Archer,” and more, and one of the things that's clear is that you have to keep getting darker with this stuff for the shock of it to work at all. We live in a world where Eric Cartman got his revenge on a kid by killing and cooking his parents, then serving them to him. I still remember sitting there in the living room of a friend of mine, watching that episode unfold, and when we got to the end of the episode and we saw Cartman literally licking the tears off the kid's face, savoring them, we basically lost our minds. It was one of the darkest, craziest things I'd ever seen. I adore it when someone's able to take an audience into a truly horrifying place and then also make them laugh. Some of the most awful things I've ever seen in a film or on TV are also things that made me laugh so hard I got dizzy. There's a moment during one of the later seasons of the show “Trailer Park Boys” where Mr. Lahey, a world-class alcoholic, hits rock bottom, his various schemes to destroy the show's main characters having all failed. I don't even remember the set-up, but I will never forget one particular line of dialogue because even as I belly-laughed, it chilled me. “I am the liquor.” That line worked because of everything that came before it and because it is perhaps the most stark and awful confession I've ever seen played for laughs.
Jason Bateman's directorial debut, “Bad Words,” shares some common ground with this film in terms of tone and because it also features a startlingly profane and misanthropic lead. The reason “Bad Words” works, though, is because they never try to go too far with his character in terms of redeeming him. I don't need a redemption from characters like this, but I also don't need to just see someone being awful for two hours. There's a moment in this one where something jet-black happens, and as it started to play out, I almost couldn't watch. I have a threshold for cringe comedy and every now and then, a moment will happen that I have to pause because it makes me so physically uncomfortable. This was one of those moments, and as I braced myself for the sure-to-be-horrifying scene, the film suddenly doubles back and reveals that they aren't really ready to go that far. That left me doubly-confused, though, because the way they handle it is almost a cop-out. I couldn't decide which version of the moment would work better, and it finally struck me that I'm not sure either ending would really work to put it all together.
Director Bryan Buckley has been a big name in the world of commercials for years and years now, and he handles the material well. I think the film's a little flabby, but it could easily be trimmed back to fighting weight. There are some good performers here like Rauch and Cole and Sebastian Stan and Middleditch, who kills it on every single episode of “Silicon Valley,” and they all do exactly what they were hired to do. While I have problems with the film, it works in fits and starts, and I like that it exists. I am very curious to see how Jay and Mark Duplass progress as they start producing other people's work. Their names are on three different films here, none of which were written or directed by them. What it feels like is that they're using their own success to now help foster voices they like, and it paid off handsomely in “Adult Beginners,” a Nick Kroll film I saw at Toronto last fall. Here, I can see all the reasons they made the film, and I can see how all of those things should work together.
It gets close, and I suspect the film will have its fans. I feel like it leans on formula in places, which is a shame because I think Rauch has a decent comedy voice. Just having the voice isn't enough, though, and it feels like this one could have used some more time to really connect all the dots. Still, as Sundance opening night movies go, it was a solid effort, and it's certainly worth a conversation about how far you can push a character as unlikable before it becomes impossible to redeem them for the audience. Simply by not getting the balance right, “The Bronze” seems to be lucky to have medaled at all.
“The Bronze” will play again at the Sundance Film Festival as the week continues.