The seams are showing in John Pollono’s long-aborning screen adaptation of his 2011 one-act play. In its original stage incarnation, Small Engine Repair was a taut, testosterone-fueled, darkly comic drama that, while it wore its David Mamet and Neil LaBute influences a little too obviously, delivered incisive characterizations and some nastily entertaining plot twists. In his effort to flesh out the bare-bones story for the big screen, writer-director Pollono adds situations and characters, some previously discussed but never seen. The results, although sporadically arresting, feel awkward, like a child wearing clothing a few sizes too big.
Set in “Manch Vegas,” a disparaging nickname for Manchester, New Hampshire, the story revolves around three lifelong buddies: volatile ex-con Frankie (Pollono), whose machine shop gives the film its title; swaggering ladies’ man Swaino (Jon Bernthal); and social media-obsessed Packie (Shea Whigham). The sort of coarse working-class stiffs whose idea of a tender holiday greeting is “Merry fucking Christmas,” they share a mutual devotion to Frankie’s 17-year-old daughter, Crystal (Ciara Bravo, Cherry), who has just been admitted to a prestigious university and whose mother, Karen (Jordana Spiro), has recently reappeared after being out of Crystal’s life for years.
Small Engine Repair
Loses something in the transition from stage to screen.
The film takes quite a bit of time meandering through a series of colorful anecdotes involving the three men until they have a falling-out as a result of a raucous bar fight (naturally).
It’s at this point, roughly 20 minutes in, that the film picks up where the play began, in the process morphing into something much different. Frankie invites the two men over several months later, inducing them to come under false pretenses by telling Swaino there’ll be strippers present and Packie that he has cancer. The real reason for the reconciliation eventually becomes clear after the arrival of arrogant young preppie drug dealer Chad (Spencer House), who has ostensibly come to sell Frankie some Ecstasy.
To reveal more would be to spoil the surprises in store, which touch on such hot-button themes as the pernicious effects of social media, including online bullying. Unfortunately, Pollono seems less interested in delivering social commentary than Tarantino-like shocks, sometimes of the gruesomely violent variety, infused with generous doses of black humor. While the dark material worked to a significant degree onstage, here it feels forced and artificial. The attempts at stylization, including elaborate fantasy and flashback sequences, one of which unfortunately involves Whigham having to play his character as a little boy, prove further alienating.
You can see why the debuting filmmaker was eager to bring his play to the screen. Besides showcasing his undeniable gift for pungent, profanity-laden comic dialogue, especially of the proletarian variety, it provides meaty acting opportunities for its three male leads. Pollono and Bernthal, repeating their stage characterizations, deliver sharp, subtle performances that never feel stereotypical or condescending, while newcomer to the material Whigham, playing much against type, is a revelation as the squirrely, socially maladroit Packie, whose internet skills come in surprisingly handy. The major female characters added for the film are similarly effective, with Bravo quietly affecting as the daughter who unwittingly sets the plot in motion and Spiro adding amusing jolts of energy every moment she’s onscreen.
Despite the strong performances, however, Small Engine Repair never manages to shake off its inherent staginess. Everything feels calculated for effect, from the anecdotal scenes designed to give depth to the characters to the dramatic revelations in the final act. It’s the kind of film for which you expect the performers to give bows during the end credits.