There’s a rich history of movies being entirely at odds with their cryptic titles—step forward Quantum of Solace—but for his follow-up to The Wound, South African director John Trengrove has picked a doozy, a title that sounds more like a dystopian Adam Sandler comedy than the dour story of urban disintegration that it actually is. Images of star Jesse Eisenberg sporting a mop of red hair for the film have been also something of a misdirect, perhaps giving some the impression that Manodrome, which premiered in Competition at the Berlin Film Festival, could be some kind of satirical emo Fight Club for sad-sacks. Fight Club comparisons actually do turn out to be (lightly) relevant, as are callbacks to Taxi Driver, but Manodrome is so achingly laborious and serious that it won’t be encroaching on either for virtual shelf space in the Toxic Masculinity section of anyone’s streaming library.
This seriousness takes some time to bed in, since it’s so serious, you don’t think it could possibly be that serious. Eisenberg plays Ralphie, a New York Uber driver who is dealing with a life change: his partner, Sal (Odessa Young), is pregnant, and the bills are getting harder and harder to pay, especially with Christmas approaching. A friend from the gym, Jason, tries to stage an intervention, introducing Ralphie to Dad Dan (Adrien Brody), the charismatic leader of an intense but welcoming all-male self-help group. Ralphie tries to resist his generous overtures, but Dad Dan finds his weak spot: “You have that look,” he says. “Like no one ever showed up for you.”
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Meanwhile, his relationship with Sal is deteriorating, and a common motif is that Ralphie is often spiritually or emotionally absent when they’re together (“Where did you go, Ralphie?” asks Sal, more than once). With Dad Dan, however, it’s a different story, and when the latter tells Ralphie that he has “a cataclysmic power to create and annihilate…” Well, it’s game on. Suffering a kind of breakdown, Ralphie becomes another person, tapping into his destructive instincts—perhaps fuelled by steroids, an aspect of gym culture alluded to by bulk containers of protein powder—and finally descending into madness after Sal leaves him literally holding the baby.
Manodrome is so full of portent that, for quite some time, all there seems to be is endless portent, notably in a scene where a creepy street Santa appears to expose himself to Ralphie, a surreal WTF moment at odds with the so-far realist tone. But when Ralphie snaps, we’re suddenly in a whole other story: a first-person meltdown movie that brings to mind the much better (but just as dour) Sundance entry Magazine Dreams. Eisenberg can do dark, complex and conflicted, but outright deranged is perhaps a stop beyond his station, especially when the character’s vicious homophobia unexpectedly enters the frame. It’s also a place this film didn’t really need to go to, hammering home its rather obvious thoughts on male violence that, quite frankly, don’t really help anybody.
The film has relevance, of course, at a time when vulnerable men are groomed and politicized, but, curiously, Manodrome doesn’t investigate that at all, preferring instead to be an well-worn melodrama with a varnish of faux importance. Such is the fast turnover of culture wars that tomorrow’s headlines too often make yesterday’s movies.
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