Review: ‘Golden Arm,’ starring Mary Holland, Betsy Sodaro, Olivia Stambouliah, Eugene Cordero, Dawn Luebbe, Dot-Marie Jones and Ron Funches

May 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Betsy Sodaro and Mary Holland (both arm wrestling) in “Golden Arm” (Photo courtesy of Utopia Distribution)

“Golden Arm”

Directed by Maureen Bharoocha

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kanasas, Oklahoma, and a few other U.S. states, the comedy film “Golden Arm” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash: A mild-mannered baker is recruited by her truck-driving best friend to enter an arm-wrestling tournament.

Culture Audience: “Golden Arm” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a foul-mouthed but ultimately sentimental and predictable comedy film.

Dawn Luebbe and Olivia Stambouliah in “Golden Arm” (Photo courtesy of Utopia Distribution)

A movie as formulaic as the comedy “Golden Arm” can be enjoyable if the cast members make the film more interesting. Thanks largely to a charming performance by lead actress Mary Holland, “Golden Arm” is a breezy and occasionally raunchy story of how a shy baker ended up as a serious contender in an arm-wrestling tournament. Of course, the story is about much more than winning the contest and more about how what she discovers about herself along the way.

“Golden Arm” is the feature-film directorial debut of Maureen Bharoocha, who has a background in directing television (such as ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live”) and short films. The “Golden Arm” screenplay (written by Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly) hits all the major clichés of sports comedies and buddy comedies. There’s a big sports competition with a high-stakes prize for the protagonists. There’s a duo of opposite personalities who are stuck together while traveling, with some inevitable bickering and a falling out or two. And, of course, there’s a villain who’s intent on defeating the protagonists.

In “Golden Arm,” Holland portrays a meek and neurotic baker named Melanie, who is in her mid-30s and who lives somewhere in Kansas. Melanie is financially struggling to keep her bakery in business. She’s the bakery’s only employee. And her personal life is also in a rut, because her marriage of five years has ended in divorce. The movie’s first scene with Melanie features her arrogant ex-husband Steve (played by Matt Newell) showing up unannounced at the bakery so that Melanie can sign the final divorce papers.

As an example of Melanie being afraid of confrontation, the movie shows that she has a regular customer named Kristen (played by Lauren Knutti), a snooty yoga instructor who orders the same thing every time: a cup of coffee, which automatically comes with a free scone. Kristen makes a point of demanding the scone, she takes one bite, and then makes sure that Melanie sees her throws the scone away in the bakery’s trash bin. Melanie displays a cheerful “the customer is always right” attitude, but inside she’s seething at Kristen’s insulting rudeness.

And speaking of rude people, Melanie’s best friend/former college roommate is the loud and obnoxious Danny (played by Betsy Sodaro), who drives a big rig truck for a living. In her free time, Danny loves to hang out in bars, arm wrestle, and pick fights with unsuspecting people. However, Danny is fiercely loyal to the friends that she has, which include a group of female arm wrestlers called The Dominators.

The opening of “Golden Arm” shows Danny in a seedy-looking bar and losing a wrestling match to someone who’s an even bigger menace than Danny is: Brenda (played by Olivia Stambouliah), also known by her arm wrestling name The Bone Crusher. Danny loses so badly that her wrist is fractured. In retaliation, Danny head butts Brenda, and they get into a big brawl.

Outside the bar, Danny gripes about Brenda to Danny’s friends Jerry (played by Ahmed Bharoocha), Rambea (played by Veronique Parker) and Momo (played by Ashley Mandanas): “She’s getting rid of all of the competition so that she can get the Grand Slam. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to let her win this tournament! We need somebody new, somebody she’s not expecting. We need a ringer.”

You know what that means. It isn’t long before Danny shows up at Melanie’s bakery and asks her to go on a big rig haul with her to make some money and have a gal pal road trip. Melanie and Danny haven’t seen each other in a while, but they still consider each other to be close friends. Later in the movie, there are a few flashbacks of Melanie and Danny during their college roommate days, when they used to smoke marijuana and arm wrestle for fun.

At first, Melanie immediately declines Danny’s offer to go on a road trip. Melanie’s excuse is that she can’t afford to take time off from work. But when Danny tells her that they will make enough money to help Melanie pay her increasing debt and bills, Melanie changes her mind and calculates that she can afford to close the bakery for about a week to go on the trip.

During their road trip in Danny’s truck, viewers find out that Melanie and Danny’s favorite song is Heart’s 1980s hit “These Dreams.” Cue the scene where they sing along to “These Dreams” in the truck. It’s not the last time the song will be heard in the movie. Danny and Melanie also stop at a bar, where a misunderstanding happens between the bar’s no-nonsense owner Randy (played by Kate Flannery) and Melanie.

To smooth things over, Danny suggests that Melanie and Randy arm wrestle each other, and the winner will get some cash. Some of the bar patrons take bets. The odds are in favor of Randy, because of her tough demeanor. But viewers shouldn’t be surprised when Melanie wins, because why else would Danny think that Melanie was a good candidate to be in an arm wrestling tournament on short notice?

This small victory boosts Melanie’s confidence. And so, Danny decides the time is right to reveal the real agenda for the trip. Danny tells Melanie about the national arm wrestling tournament in Oklahoma City that she wants Melanie to enter. Melanie reluctantly agrees to compete in the tournament because the grand prize is $15,000.

Melanie hasn’t arm wrestled in years and feels like her wrestling skills are rusty. During their road trip, Melanie reluctantly agrees to do some training with a tough-talking taskmaster named Big Sexy (played by Dot-Marie Jones), who is a friend of Danny’s. Big Sexy, who has 15 arm-wrestling world titles, is shocked to find out that Melanie is actually a powerhouse arm wrestler.

However, Melanie gets angry about Danny pressuring her to be in the tournament, and they argue about it. She tells Danny: “I’m just so sick of everyone dictating my life! I never put myself first! I don’t listen to my gut!”

Eventually, Melanie calms down and says she’ll still be in the tournament. Melanie and Danny continue on to Oklahoma City. However, Melanie keeps getting plagued by self-doubt, and there are more moments in the film where she might or might not quit the tournament. The event is being held at a place called Star Arena, which really just looks like a large dive bar.

Meanwhile, Melanie has an awkward “meet cute” moment with a potential love interest named Greg (played by Eugene Cordero), when they both end up in their underwear in the same dressing room. Greg is a Major League Baseball umpire, he’s single, and there’s an immediate attraction between him and Melanie. Their blossoming romance is sweet and a counterbalance to a lot of the crudeness in the movie.

As watchable as Holland is in “Golden Arm,” a lot of viewers might find Sodaro’s Danny character very grating and hard to take. Danny’s over-aggressiveness is best served in small doses. However, there are enough comedic moments with Danny that might give people some chuckles. One of the funniest running gags is the lusty relationship that Danny has with tournament emcee/referee Carl (played by Ron Funches), which results in some amusing slapstick comedy.

Stambouliah’s portrayal of ruthless villain Deborah is very caricature-like. Deborah, who is constantly snarling or smirking, dresses in an outer corset and other clothes that look like she watched too many episodes of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Deborah has a sniveling sidekick named Tessie (played by Dawn Luebbe), who brings some occasional laughs to the story.

Although “Golden Arm” plays out exactly like you think it does, there’s enough originality in the story so that it isn’t a completely paint-by-numbers project. Aparna Nancherla has a small but scene-stealing role as an arm wrestler named Coco Cherie, who dresses like a mermaid cosplayer. Coco Cherie has a hilarious monologue in the movie about the differences between labia and testicles and how they can be used in metaphors for bravery.

Melanie’s experience in this wrestling tournament doesn’t go very smoothly, because “Golden Arm” is a stereotypical underdog story. She goes through three different name changes for her wrestling persona, which is also symbolic of Melanie’s search for self-confidence and her true identity during this life-changing trip. All of the production elements of “Golden Arm” are solid, although at times it looks like a made-for-TV movie. And that’s okay. Not all entertaining movies have to be Oscar-worthy, just like not all arm wrestlers can be champions.

Utopia Distribution released “Golden Arm” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 30, 2021.