If there’s a single taboo in contemporary US comedy, it’s politeness. Ever since Bad Santa kicked off an industry-wide arms race to spin every emblem of civic responsibility – from teachers to neighbours to grandpas – into something “Bad”, misanthropy has been the order of the day in American entertainment.
Nowadays, every comic hero is an antihero, although few are quite so hateful as retired gymnast Hope Annabelle Greggory, the emotional black hole at the centre of The Bronze, a sporting comedy which premiered last year at Sundance and this week goes straight-to-VOD just in time for the Rio games. Having garnered national attention with a dramatic third-place finish at the 2004 Olympics, Hope now clings to her status as the pride and joy of Amherst, Ohio, the small midwestern town in which her former glory still entitles her to free pizza at the mall and gratis weed from a local dealer. Lest she miss a single opportunity to exploit her fading celebrity, she wears an Olympic warmup jacket day and night, making it less of a conscious sartorial choice and more an innate facet of her being, like Mickey Mouse’s shorts, or Fred Flintstone’s tie.
Perpetually bitter and entitled, she recalls a decade’s worth of Danny McBride characters, not least the egotistical Taekwondo instructor he played in 2006’s The Foot Fist Way, which also mined suburban sporting endeavour for its innate despair. And, like McBride’s crudely vindictive creations, Hope’s relentless malice sometimes feels motivated less by circumstance and more by The Bronze’s desire to prove its own “edgy” credentials.
At its best, though, the film provides Hope with just enough emotional interiority to reframe her obnoxiousness as the inevitable result of a childhood dedicated to the pursuit of athletic supremacy. Thanks largely to a ferocious lead performance by co-writer Melissa Rauch (of Big Bang Theory fame), the film persuasively argues that humanity’s worst qualities are still – by definition – humanising, and that we need not like a character, or even empathise with them, to understand their plight.
Also helping to pull The Bronze back from the misanthropic brink is a visual kineticism absent from the vast majority of US comedies, which imbues even Hope’s most hopeless moments with a strange comic dynamism. Most lively of all is a spectacular sex scene between she and a former rival gymnast, impressive not just for its carnal athleticism, but its all-too-rare acknowledgement that consenting adults tend to have sex fully undressed.