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Manodrome 2023 Movie Review
In the last few decades, the concept of toxic masculinity has become more widespread as the world has confronted the shortcomings of gender stereotypes. But while we can hopefully expect younger generations will be more prepared to deal with complex questions of identity and sexuality, the fact remains that there are whole generations of men raised to believe they are strong, powerful, and aggressive. Even worse, there are thousands of men convinced they can’t be anything else. So what happens to this significant segment of society when they can no longer pretend to control their own lives? South African director John Trengove’s English language debut, Manodrome, explores how a society that holds inclusive values makes certain men dangerously frustrated. And while Manodrome doesn’t always manage to keep steady pacing, it still serves as a unique character study for Jesse Eisenberg’s angry and destructive young man.
Manodrome follows Ralphie (Eisenberg), who just got fired and, unable to get a steady job, has been working as an app driver to pay the bills. Ralphie’s girlfriend, Sal (Odessa Young), is pregnant, which increases the pressure on Ralphie. After all, he has to be a provider for his family, and the man of the house. Still, instead of acting according to his will, he spends days taking orders from a GPS. To control the chaos of his life, Ralphie dedicates his free time to counting calories and lifting weights, as bodybuilding is the last place where he can define his goals and achieve them. So, like millions of people worldwide, Ralphie feels other people are always getting in the way of him getting what he wants. But what hurts Ralphie more than others is that he was born and raised to be a man, with all the complications the term carries.
Manodrome never lets the audience forget that Eisenberg has an incredible range as an actor, capable of conveying complex emotions even when he plays a man of few words. Ralphie is, without a doubt, the most complex character Eisenberg has played yet, and he does so with much raw energy that Manodrome can, at times, become mesmerizing for his presence alone. As the story of Manodrome unfolds, we witness Ralphie slowly crawling toward his breaking point. There’s a well-justified feeling of impotency face of the brutality of the corporate system. But there are also repressed desires Ralphie refuses to confront, lest he becomes less than what he thinks it’s a man. On top of it all, he’s trapped in a loveless relationship with Sal, who’s keeping the baby because Ralphie wants to see himself as a family man. In short, Ralphie is alone inside a cage he built for himself. That is, until he crosses paths with Dad Dan (Adrien Brody), the patriarch of an all-male community who dedicates his life to supporting other men and letting them unleash their inner power.
It’s nearly impossible to watch Manodrome and not think about David Fincher’s Fight Club, which is also about men enabling each other’s toxic masculinity. And just like the 1999 classic, Manodrome explores the consequences of enabling toxic behaviors associated with masculinity. However, in Manodrome, there’s no place for doubt about the damage Dad Dan and his family can do, and no quirky political message to distract the audience from the fact that what’s being put into question is the idea that men are naturally violent and fit for leadership. In addition, Manodrome doesn’t tone down the homoerotic outlines of a story about men admiring men. In that sense, Manodrome takes Fight Club’s message and ensures the public will get it this time. And even if Trengove’s movie is less concerned with being entertaining, Manodrome is still an enthralling experience for the most part.
For everything it does well, Manodrome is less successful in keeping the audience engaged in Ralphie’s story. The movie flirts with the beginning of a third arc several times before finally reaching an ending, and even at just 95-minute runtime, many people will undoubtedly feel Manodrome has overstayed its welcome. It’s easy to understand why Trengove tried to squeeze every drop of metaphor from his latest film, as there’s much to explore when it comes to toxic masculinity. However, the final stretch of Manodrome begins repeating ideas and putting the message ahead of a cohesive narrative, all the while it refuses to let Ralphie’s story end.
Despite its flaws, Manodrome is still a sensible exploration of how toxic masculinity changes, shapes, and slips through the cracks while fighting to survive in a world where the patriarch is constantly under assault. It’s also a cautionary tale about how a community can enable broken men to embrace what makes them dangerous for the people around them and themselves. Finally, it serves as a gritty character study where Eisenberg can flex some new acting muscles. Add the always-reliable Brody to the mix, and it’s easy to forgive Manodrome’s imperfections.