There were rumblings suggesting The Bronze might be lucky to make it to the podium at all. Distribution was troubled, the release dates shifty and publicity limited. Rumblings. But one minute into the film, former Olympian Hope Ann Greggory—played by writer Melissa Rauch, from The Big Bang Theory—masturbates to a video of herself winning the medal for the U.S. women's gymnastics team despite a Kerri Strug-esque injury. And I was sold.
That scene introduces you to the backstory of Hope, a former national hero, without feeling sappy or forced. Now, it's years after her medal-winning performance, and Hope's injuries kept her from further competition. She's older, but she's never moved on. She's still a hero to her small town, but maybe she's been milking her celebrity a little too long. Despite her best efforts to remain a drain on the city, she gets roped into training another young gymnast and has to sideline her concerns that this new blood will eclipse her own fame. A very nonstandard sports movie ensues.
The Bronze is a raunchy comedy, though saying that makes me sound like I'm 100. It's a comedy with swearing because it features adults talking like adults. But people calling it raunchy is symptomatic of the challenges of classifying comedy. Funny things are difficult to write about because the gut-level response (you laughed or you didn't) is harder to explain after the fact than other aesthetic judgments. You may not know why you laughed at something. If the people around you are laughing, you'll laugh more (which is why laugh tracks are annoying but effective). It's a challenge.
On the other hand, I'm pretty articulate, so allow me to try to explain why The Bronze is great while so many other comedies (especially those labeled "raunchy") aren't.
The characters and story are solid.
The comedy in The Bronze is an outgrowth of interesting characters and stories, rather than everything being an excuse to get to a joke. Hope is complex and interesting, played to perfection by Rauch (more on that in a second). She's not Will Ferrell yelling with a mustache or Ben Stiller yelling with a wig.
Placing the lead in a world that matters allows for hysterical moments you can't get any other way. Take, for example, the sex scene between Hope and rival gymnast Lance Tucker (played by Sebastian Stan ,from Black Swan). It's the best sex scene I've seen in a comedy since the puppets in Team America: World Police. But the idea of two gymnasts having highly gymnastic sex isn't as funny if you don't know that they're also former lovers-turned-lifelong rivals. Or that one of them is ruining a relationship with a non-gymnast by doing this. It means something, and that makes it way funnier.
I love good swearing, and I don't think it gets enough credit. Hope's innovative filthiness—"you'd better not have gotten any of your clit jizz on my car," or, "absence makes the dick grow harder"—is fun for its own sake, and it's also a key storytelling ingredient. She's swears at her dad, which tells you a lot about her relationships. She swears on TV. And she teaches her young student to swear, an important step in the protegee's corruption.
The protagonist is unlikable.
Hope is hard to root for, and that's fun in a sports movie. She's an asshole. She's mean to children and the elderly. She's terrible to her father and his pet goldfish. She's manipulative. Even when she does the right things, it's for totally the wrong reasons. And despite her complete lack of redeeming qualities, I did end up wanting her to succeed. That is a great artistic accomplishment.
Melissa Rauch is golden.
Rauch plays Hope like she lives inside her. It's consistent and subtle. Given that the charter is so unlikable, the key to making you root for her are these tiny smiles, small moments when you see through her gnarly exterior. Rauch does that to perfection. Plus, the swearing sounds really funny with her Midwest accent.
SEE IT: The Bronze is rated R. It opens Friday at most Portland-area theaters.