Seeing Jesse Eisenberg with red hair and muscles is a little disconcerting. He looks like he’s getting ready to play Carrot Top. Ralphie, the bodybuilding character he portrays in Manodrome, may not look like the slightly geeky guys we’re used to seeing him as, but he does share inner turmoil. That’s become Eisenberg’s trademark as an actor. This time around, he finds a forceful new direction for that. He’s fantastic, even if the movie itself is rocky.
Ralphie was unceremoniously fired from his professional career and now works as a ride share driver. His girlfriend Sal (Odessa Young) is pregnant – a prospect he’s uncertain about. Becoming a parent doesn’t feel right when they’re scraping to get by. Ralphie joins one of those “men’s rights” groups that mistake toxic masculinity for power. It’s run by "Dad Dan" (Adrien Brody), a wealthy guy who preaches to his disciples – or “sons” - about the importance of claiming what’s yours, being an alpha male, and all that nonsense. Rather than becoming healed by this, Ralphie’s inner rage is let loose to the detriment of himself and everyone around him.
Early scenes in Manodrome are the best. Eisenberg imbues Ralphie with a tightly wound quality, as if he’s constantly on the verge of exploding. By the time he’s been through Dad Dan’s training, the character begins to think that allowing himself to blow up is not only justifiable, but morally right. Brody is also excellent, playing Dad Dan as a quiet, introspective guy who nevertheless takes pleasure in lighting the fuses of his recruits. More scenes of his offbeat therapy sessions would have helped the movie overall because the few that are here have a nervous electricity to them.
The back half is where the story falters. Ralphie performs a series of acts that don’t make sense. We’re supposed to believe he’s gone unhinged, yet his reason for picking these particular behaviors is hazy. Consequently, it seems like writer/director John Trengove is merely going for shock value. What this tormented protagonist does isn’t fully supported by what we’ve seen him go through.
A good film could definitely take apart the mindset behind men’s rights groups, incels, etc. Manodrome earns partial credit for making an attempt. By the end, though, the story doesn’t say a whole lot other than that believing toxic ideas turns you into a toxic person. Not exactly a huge revelation.
out of four
Manodrome is rated R for violence, sexual content, language, graphic nudity, and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.