Frustrating Incel Satire Sees Jesse Eisenberg’s Best Turn in a Decade
Feb 20, 2023
Based on the synopsis alone, one would think John Trengove’s “Manodrome” to have two feet in satire: Jesse Eisenberg is Ralphie, a father-to-be lulled into a libertarian masculinity cult led by Adrien Brody. It is odd, then, to see the South African director mindlessly bypass the clever beats of parody in favor of a dreary mishmash of classics such as Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and David Fincher’s “The Fight Club.”
With a kid on the way, losing his job was not on Ralphie’s plans. Alas, life is rarely a straight road, so the young man turns to Uber driving for a living, his eyes often fixated on the potpourri of people who come in and out of his car. This attention rarely extends to Sal (Odessa Young), who grows increasingly peeved with the lifelessness of her boyfriend in what was supposed to be one of the most exciting moments of their lives.
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The only thing to pluck Ralphie from inertia is the prospect of descending into the underground weightlifting gym, where he pulls and pushes and growls as droplets of sweat highlight his timid muscles. The heightened effort leads him straight into a Percocet habit, and the Percocet habit leads him straight to the long dinner table where he first meets “the guys,” a group of men introduced to him by his small-time dealer.
Although “the guys” implies a democratic camaraderie, it is clear from the get-go that the outspoken bunch of men are led by Brody’s self-titled Dad Dan, as pruned a cool guy as there ever was. The group, says the dealer, is there to help guys like Ralphie, good men going through a not-so-good patch. Dan, of course, sees in Ralphie what no one else has ever seen: a bottomless well of promise. It doesn’t take long for curiosity to turn into infatuation, Dan lulling Ralphie into Manodrome, the bourgeois cult ran out of his imposing mansion.
We never learn precisely how Dad Dan affords to house and feed all members of Manodrome, nor are we made privy to the catalyst of this unusual vanity project — we know only Dan has been married and divorced thrice. The details of the multiple divorces are also obscured, but it is fair to admit the failures have scarred the leader into celibacy, a measure adopted by all his followers. Celibacy should be a clear impediment to a man with a very pregnant girlfriend, but Ralphie plays along, daydreaming of a life without the pressures of impending fatherhood and the heavy burden of constantly disappointing his partner.
The gendered roots of Manodrome are an easy connector to modern incel culture, but Trengove is much more interested in regurgitating old tropes around repressed sexuality than dissecting the sociopolitical environment that has allowed men like Andrew Tate to enlist troops of bigoted keyboard warriors. This misguided turn feels cheap, draining “Manodrome” from the discussion that it teases from its tense set-up.
If the script plunges into the frustrating waters of predictability, “Manodrome” finds some solace in the asserted cast. Eisenberg’s anxious aura is the perfect match for a character all too willing to mistake meekness for a calling, patheticness here neatly packaged as naivete. He photographs his barely inflated biceps in front of gym mirrors and struts in the ugliest yellow polo shirt ever known to man, shyly munching on any crumble of self-worth at the offer.
Brody comes in as the ideal opposite, a man so naturally settled in his charm it is almost impossible not to be swayed by whatever comes out of his mouth. The Oscar-winning actor plays with the stereotype of the sect leader, donning modern-looking clothes and carefully tending to the domesticity that ensures a vital sense of community within the group. Dan understands that the type of man who comes crawling into his open arms is one far too used to a heavy hand, so he opts for the softness of nurturing instead. The man asks for consent before initiating physical contact of any kind and hands out hyperbolic compliments with the easiness of the all-convincing, his subdued persona a nifty antidote to the God complex of the likes of Jim Jones and Charles Manson.
As “Manodrome” approaches its dramatic conclusion, it’s hard not to be lulled into the futile imaginings of the film it could have been. At least the mourning can be softened by the best Eisenberg offering in over a decade — a turn so sharp not even the repeated use of the word “gynosphere” could spoil it. [C+]
Ce “Manodrome” réalisé par John Trengove sur l’essor des mouvements masculinistes depuis quelques années, notamment aux USA, et leur influence sur l’arrivée au pouvoir de Trump, mais aussi sur la poussée de l’Alt-Right et des mouvements conspis m’intrigue très fortement. pic.twitter.com/RBZZUdZJep— Flo, la gauchiasse de la Saucisse (@Tr1v1alPPan) February 17, 2023
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