In Manodrome, cinema’s enduring love for frustrated male loners is brought, kicking and screaming, into the cold light of the present day. Set in an unnamed, crumbling city in the Northeast, it stars an against-type Jesse Eisenberg as a jacked-up, emotionally stunted gym bro who joins a cult of voluntarily and involuntarily celibate men. The director is John Trengrove, whose previous feature The Wound used a very real Xhosa rite of passage as a way to examine the ever-knotted rituals of male bonding. The subcultures in Manodrome are ostensibly a work of fiction but, exaggerated as they may be, are no less plausible or rife with intrigue.
What Manodrome suffers from is a case of spreading itself too thin. Eisenberg stars as Ralphie, a taxi driver with money problems and a meds addiction. Though they might be the least of his worries. Out shopping for baby supplies with his heavily pregnant girlfriend Sal (Odessa Young), he looks skeptically at two guys holding hands; later in the gym, he throws a similarly conflicted glance at a group of black men. While scoring drugs, his dealer friend Jason (Philip Ettinger) tells him about a kind of club that helped him out when he fell on hard times. Ralphie agrees to join them for a meal, at which point: welcome to the Manodrome, a Fight Club with little interest in fighting and even less in having sex. As Ralphie soon discovers, these eerily friendly fellas all live in a grand house outside the city where they eat together, chop wood, and conduct AA-style meetings where each member says how many days they’ve gone without.
It’s a juicy setup but Trengrove, unsure where to hold his gaze, leaves a bit too much to the imagination. You wonder: where is the money coming from? Who even are these guys? And what exactly is the catch? I found myself waiting for some kind of Cielo Drive-style induction where Ralphie’s dedication will be put to the test; but the only criteria, it seems, for joining this warped but hilariously cozy alternative family is a deep distaste for the opposite sex and a rather unnecessary cattle brand on the arm. Ralphie’s central conflict, indeed the film’s, is whether or not he is willing to leave Sal to join his no-nut brothers and, of course, whether he will eventually blow a fuse.
Casting, luckily, leaves plenty to enjoy. Eisenberg gives it his all in a role that remains indebted to his signature twitchy mannerisms even as it looks to break the mold. Opposite him, kind yet dogged, Young provides the ideal sparring partner. Amongst the Manodrome clan are welcome faces like Ethan Suplee, Evan Joningkeit, and (best of all) Adrien Brody, who showed up in Succession last year––a vision in layered fleece––like an old friend, but now appears to be everywhere. A sleaze in See How They Run, another sleaze in Poker Face, and now a sleazy, fatherly cult leader who calls himself Dad Dan and says things like “you have a cataclysmic power to create and annihilate.” Laying waste to the scenery, Brody has a blast in the role. That kind of energy is nothing if not infectious.
Beyond it all, Trengrove has plenty to say––though perhaps a few too many for a film this light on its feet. He isn’t coy about his film’s allusions to Taxi Driver: in the opening scene he shows Ralphie’s eyes in the front mirror, darting back and forth like a gig-economy Travis Bickle, catching a glimpse of a woman breast-feeding in the back seat. The layers of complexity in that glance––perverted, disgusted, even Oedipal––are the kind of things that occasionally threaten to give Trengrove’s film a real razor’s edge, but Manodrome never fully commits to any one of its subversive subtexts for a meaningful period of time. Ralphie’s relationship with the black men in his gym, and especially Ahmet (a great turn from Sallieu Sesay), is Manodrome‘s ultimate hot potato, but the film cuts it short and only dares to skim the surface.
That unwillingness to commit leaves a funny taste in the mouth: Manodrome barrages the viewer with transgressive ideas that the film itself doesn’t seem to have a stomach for. What we get instead is a fun ride: a cinema of taboos, triggers, and easy targets, all performed with great zeal and absurdity, and directed with plenty of style. Full marks to Cristopher Tracy’s moody score and Wyatt Garfield’s overcast photography. There’s also a lovely coda with a near-magical cameo from Gheorghe Mureșan (still the joint-tallest player to ever grace the NBA). For that alone, it’s worth your time.
Manodrome premiered at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival.