Review: Small Engine Repair — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Writer/director John Pollono delivers a steadily tightening narrative that is seethingly human, explosively violent, and at times remarkably funny.

scene from Small Engine Repair (Vertical Entertainment)
scene from Small Engine Repair (Vertical Entertainment)

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Small Engine Repair


Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

Cast: Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Josh Helman, Spencer House, Jordana Spiro, Ciara Bravo

Writer/Director: John Pollono

In Theaters


My wife keeps asking me why men don’t have as many close friends as women do, and I think at least some of the answer can be found in Small Engine Repair, writer/director John Pollono’s brilliant, biting story of three lifelong 40-something buddies hopelessly stuck in their misspent teenage years.

The reason is tragically simple: When three or more men put their minds to anything, there’s virtually nothing they can’t do wrong.

Terry, Packie, and Tony have been roaming the streets of Manchester, NH, since the Reagan Administration. Terry runs a lawnmower repair shop, Tony is a low-level office worker, and Packie — too thoughtful to effectively engage in his pals’ lewd and lowbrow banter; too sweet-natured to return Tony’s playful but mean-spirited taunts — seems to be spending his life in the other two’s shadow, aimless and perpetually sad.

Terry has a teenage daughter, Crystal, heading off to college. He has raised her on his own, the girl’s free-spirited, alcoholic mother Karen having taken off soon after she was born.

Now it is a cold fall evening, and Terry has summoned his two old friends to his shop, ostensibly for an evening of steaks, scotch, and Patriots football. But soon a fourth guy arrives: A smarmy young man, an obviously wealthy college student, who believes he’s there to sell Terry a packet of the drug Ecstasy, a little sideline business he’s got going to supplement his generous allowance.

Only Terry knows the real reason they are all here on this night, but one thing’s for sure: What he’s got planned is no simple boys’ night out.

And just like that, Small Engine Repair shifts from echoes of David Mamet’s American Buffalo to shades of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. What’s more, thanks to his remarkable cast, Pollono — who adapted the film from his award-winning one-act play — pulls off that tricky transition and delivers a steadily tightening narrative that is seethingly human, explosively violent, and at times remarkably funny.

As tortured, vengeful Terry, Jon Bernthal is without question the film’s central force. But it’s no accident that all three male leads have strong ensemble acting experience — most notably Bernthal in The Walking Dead and Shea Whigham, who plays Packie, in David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook. Along with Josh Helman (Mad Max: Fury Road), the trio engage in the kind of rough horseplay and profane, sexist rapport that is barely excusable in 14-year-olds.

Spencer House (TV’s Space Force) plays Chad, the preppy law student who virtually parachutes into this testosterone-soaked swamp. Chad is so self-satisfied, so proudly privileged, so utterly superior with his squint-eyed, tight-lipped smile, you find yourself wanting to ask one of the others to hold your beer while you slap him silly.

His arrival — and the unspeakable reason behind his presence — forces the perpetually adolescent grownups in the room to face an excruciatingly adult dilemma. Predictably, the three seem destined to resolve their problem with all the maturity of Beavis and Butthead wielding deadly weapons. Luckily for them, Terry’s ex arrives on the scene in the person of Jordana Spiro (TV’s My Boys) to inject some much-needed estrogen into the proceedings.

There’s no question Small Engine Repair is a male-driven film, but there’s no overstating the importance of Spiro and, as Terry’s daughter, young Ciara Bravo (TV’s Second Chance) to the endeavor. Strident and self-assured, both actresses effectively portray women who, in the end, show the guys what it really means to man up.

Featured image: scene from Small Engine Repair (Vertical Entertainment)

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