‘Small Engine Repair’ Review: Of Mechanics and Men

What happens in Manch-Vegas stays in Manch-Vegas. Just ask the men from “Small Engine Repair,” an adaptation of the play of the same name by the actor and playwright John Pollono. The film, which Pollono also directs, provides more depth than the original but still flounders in the translation from stage to screen.

Frank (Pollono) calls together his longtime buds Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Packie (Shea Whigham), middle-aged natives of Manchester, New Hampshire, who’ve fallen out because of a brawl. When a frat boy named Chad (Spencer House) joins what seems like a normal night of bro-ing, the darker intentions behind the gathering are revealed.

Pollono’s film has the same grit as the play, which premiered Off Broadway in 2013. Pollono, Bernthal and Whigham deliver ace performances that humanize these puerile man-children without pardoning them. The dialogue is brutal: crass, racist, homophobic, misogynist. It’s The Testosterone Show. Though the play examined the men’s relationship to women, it lacked women characters; the film thankfully corrects that, introducing Frank’s ex Karen (Jordana Spiro) and daughter Crystal (Ciara Bravo).

The film self-consciously cushions the trim content of the play, converting anecdotal moments in the dialogue into flashbacks. These additions more explicitly critique the characters for a 2021 audience with greater sensitivity to depictions of toxic men, but they’re largely distracting, highlighting how the film sits uneasily between the contained world of the play and the larger world the adaptation attempts to build. Ultimately, the story still feels unfinished, and Pollono’s direction falters in the film’s big twist, when it tries to balance horror and humor before its tidy resolution.

Small Engine Repair
Rated R for gutter-mouth trash-talking. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters.

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