Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

The runaway success of Napoleon Dynamite gave a lot of small-time filmmakers false hope. Jared Hess’ surprise hit convinced aspiring creative types that with the right combination of elements, a low-budget comedy with an unlikable protagonist, costumes that look like they were procured from a Sears catalog in 1986, and production design heavy in wood paneling could break their films out of the indie film/arthouse ghetto and become a hit.

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Like a lot of movies that flourished at Sundance, only to die a painful death outside it, 2015’s The Bronze shares a certain sour, curdled sensibility with Napoleon Dynamite, though The Bronze is the far superior film. The Bronze was picked up for a wide release with visions of Napoleon Dynamite-style breakout success in mind. After a series of hiccups and false starts, the film defied expectations to become one of the biggest box-office bombs ever.

Despite opening on more than a thousand screens, The Bronze grossed less than a half-million dollars its opening weekend, making it one of the five weakest wide openings of all time, alongside such My World Of Flops favorites as Delgo and Oogieloves In The Big Balloon Adventure. The film’s failure is largely a matter of scope. If it had enjoyed a small arthouse run or quiet VOD release, The Bronze very well could have been a modest commercial success. But because it opened wide, expectations were higher than the film’s exceedingly modest scope and budget would suggest. Wide releases just don’t make sense for movies this small, weird, distinctive, and intentionally off-putting.

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But before The Bronze gets ingratiatingly dark and strange, it begins in a fairly generic manner. The flop opens with a brief rundown of protagonist Hope Ann Greggory’s early glory as an accomplished, obsessive gymnast whose career peaked with a stunning turn at the 2004 Olympics where, through sheer determination, she won a bronze medal despite being injured.

Then we skip ahead to the present, where we are introduced to the now-grown Hope Ann (The Big Bang Theory’s Melissa Rauch, who also co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, Winston Rauch) masturbating watching footage of herself at her heroic peak. In independent movies, male masturbation is generally a sign of loneliness and soul-sickness, something sad men do to numb the pain of existence. It’s much different for women however. When a woman masturbates in an American film, it tends to be less sad and more sexual, a sign less of loneliness than an intense sexual hunger that is not being satisfied.

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But introducing Hope Ann Gregory masturbating to her moment of ultimate triumph introduces the character as a fucked-up human being, an emotionally stunted woman-child stuck forever at an age when the world radiated promise. Hope’s entire existence is masturbatory: She lives only to satiate her immediate need for pleasure and escape, with no thought of connecting with anyone or anything outside herself.

Over a decade after her Olympics triumph, Hope stays stuck in a state of suspended development. Her hair remains pulled back into a gymnast’s practical ponytail, augmented by bangs that would be deeply unflattering and perverse even if they didn’t make her look like a style-challenged 12-year-old. Hope is dressed perpetually in the same clothes, like a cartoon character, in this case an Olympics outfit that serves as a simultaneously inspirational and dispiriting reminder that she wasn’t always a bitter has-been just barely existing on the fringes of society.

In a kinder world, Hope would be able to exploit her early fame on an inspirational speaker circuit perfect for hard-luck narratives like herself. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that Hope is more or less incapable of uttering more than a sentence without resorting to enthusiastic, imaginative profanity. She’s the kind of woman who tells an adoring tween protege to shut her “cock-hole” in a flat, nasal, Ohio-specific, bullhorn of a Midwestern accent that punishes the ears of anyone foolish enough to try to break through her bubble of toxic self-absorption.

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Hope’s days are an empty, interchangeable blur of meaningless casual sex, compulsive drinking, drug abuse, and low-level criminality, all unwillingly financed by Hope’s loving but co-dependent father Stan (a mustachioed, bespectacled Gary Cole). Stan deserves a place alongside Mike Brady and Ricky Bobby’s old man in Talladega Nights: The Legend Of Ricky Bobby in the pantheon of great Gary Cole dads. He brings a disarming sweetness and vulnerability to the role.

Stan loves his daughter not wisely but too well. Where her life was once a heartwarming, inspirational tale of triumph over adversity—motherless little girl comes out of nowhere to become a champion—now it has the sad, seedy feel of the pre-intervention sequences of Intervention, when the show is just luxuriating in the free-floating sadness and despair of a typical junkie’s life.

International fame was once a skeleton key that opened all doors. By the time The Bronze kicks into high gear, Hope’s rewards of Olympics fame have been reduced to complimentary mystery drugs from a friendly stoner and free food at select restaurants in a rundown mall. One day, everything changes when Hope receives news that her hard-drinking, hard-living coach has committed suicide and left her a half-million dollars on the condition that she take over coaching of promising protégé Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), the radiant child of a single mother who is everything her unlikely new coach is not: full of boundless energy and enthusiasm, sunny and ambitious.

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If making Hope’s sizable inheritance contingent on embarking on a potentially life-changing and life-saving quest custom-made for a redemptive arc sounds only slightly more realistic than making an inheritance dependent on the inheritor surviving a night in a haunted house, there’s a good reason for that. The catalyst for The Bronze’s plot feels phony because it is bogus: It’s eventually revealed that Hope’s dad faked the stipulation as a way of finally rousing his daughter out of her depressed, drugged-up stupor and getting her back into a world where she was once a champion and a source of pride rather than shame.

When it comes to plot and hitting the beats of the underdog coach/underdog protégé comedy, The Bronze is pretty much just going through the motions. Maggie makes an indelible impression early on as a sentient ray of sunshine who can’t help but penetrate Hope’s infinite darkness. But once a love interest arrives for our antiheroine in the adorably gawky form of Ben (Thomas Middleditch), Maggie flits in and out of the action, invariably taking a back seat to Hope.

The Bronze isn’t much of a sports film. It’s far more compelling and resonant as a pitch-black, profanely funny, and strangely touching character study of a toxic narcissist. Like Young Adult, it’s about the way self-hatred and self-aggrandizement are really just two sides of the same coin.

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In a way, the film’s stunning failure as a mass-release comedy was pre-ordained by Rauch’s refusal, as both co-writer and star, to make her character palatable to a mainstream audience. She delivers a performance devoid of vanity, uncompromising in making the protagonist not just unlikable but monstrous. Hope is aggressively sexual, profane, perpetually angry for no discernible reason, and basically just a big sentient ball of rage and resentment.

Yet Hope is no one-dimensional villain. There’s depth and substance to Rauch’s performance, as well as a pervasive sadness that comes with her character’s desperate yearning for a past that can never be recaptured. As filthy and dark as the film gets, there’s an emotional authenticity to its depiction of the aftermath of fame, unhinged narcissism, and a simultaneously loving and deeply dysfunctional and unhealthy father-daughter bond that makes it more than just a delivery system for some very big, very dirty laughs and the most athletic sex scene this side of Team America: World Police.

Rauch and Cole lend surprising depth to characters that easily could have come across as one-dimensional. The same is true of Middleditch, who brings the same stammering, gawky, doe-like appeal to the role that he brings to Silicon Valley. Middleditch and Rauch have a surprisingly strong yin-and-yang chemistry as a man who is saving himself for marriage and a woman who offers herself sexually to a pair of strangers in a bar as a way of saying “hello”.

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The world of gymnastics proves the perfect setting for a comedy of the purposefully depressing variety. The movie has a lot of fun with the impossible, grueling physical demands of the sport and the artificiality at the core of all that feigned-cheerfulness as tiny athletes who train harder than Navy SEALs, despite weighing 90 pounds, do their damnedest to pretend that performing grueling physical feats gives them explosive pleasure.

Late in the film, there’s a wonderful scene where Hope shows her impressionable protégé the facial expressions and poses she must master to stay competitive. For perhaps the first time in the film, with the possible exception of her time with Ben, Hope is smiling, and it could not look more artificial or creepy. In Hope’s joyless existence, a smile can never be an authentic expression of happiness, because she inhabits a world where happiness exists only for other people. For a hardened, cynical survivor like Hope, a smile can only ever be a ghoulish professional mask, a calculating attempt to create the illusion that there’s anything other than blackness and cobwebs in her soul.

The Edge Of Seventeen’s Richardson makes her starry-eyed dreamer so ingratiatingly ebullient that it’s a shame that after a certain point, Maggie becomes little more than a prop in Hope’s redemptive arc. As if to illustrate just how little Maggie matters in the grand scheme of things, the film sends her away on a nasty joke, positing that she left gymnastics after getting impregnated by Lance (Sebastian Stan), the asshole jock coach who, in a much earlier era, took Hope’s virginity.

Maggie’s heel turn would feel like a bigger violation if the film hadn’t more or less given up on her well before she turns on Hope. Yet this doesn’t really matter because the movie is ultimately not about Maggie or her Olympics dreams, or about gymnastics at all. It’s about Hope and her dad and her boyfriend and the tragedy and comedy of the Midwest and sad malls that serve as crumbling yet poignant monuments to quiet failure and small lives. On that level, the film is a snarky, surprisingly poignant success.

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It’s tempting to say that The Bronze brings a bracing, revelatory element of darkness and profanity to the unlikely-coach genre perfected by Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears, but the iconic 1970s classic was pretty damn dark and profane itself. So it’d be more accurate to say that The Bronze is at once a throwback to proudly nasty sports comedies like Bad News Bears and Slap Shot as well as a darkly funny, uncompromising character study about a broken woman who discovers the tools she needs to stop living in the past before it destroys her.

Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Success