The Art of Self-Defense is a witty and idiosyncratic takedown of machoism that doesn't shy away from its uncomfortably terrifying aspects.
Writer-director Riley Stearns' SXSW breakout hit The Art of Self-Defense is a bit like someone tried to imagine what might've happened if, in The Karate Kid, Daniel LaRusso had decided to study at Cobra Kai after all. What ensues is an unsettlingly funny sendup of the idea of manliness and the vainglorious (and, at time, obliviously homoerotic) nature of tough-guy behavior. Its use of heavy irony and thriller elements should be familiar to anyone who's ever watched a parody of masculine culture before, but it manages to throw enough curveballs to avoid feeling like a pale imitation of better films. The Art of Self-Defense is a witty and idiosyncratic takedown of machoism that doesn't shy away from its uncomfortably terrifying aspects.
The Art of Self-Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey Davies, a mild-mannered, 35-year old accountant who is viciously assaulted by a motorcycle gang when walking home from the grocery store one night. While recovering from his injuries, Casey decides to take up karate lessons at a local dojo run by a charismatic, if enigmatic, black belt (Alessandro Nivola) who insists that everyone simply call him Sensei. As Casey progresses to the level of yellow belt, he continues to struggle to stand up for himself and is invited by Sensei to participate in the mysterious night classes attended by the school's highest-ranking students. There, Casey is pulled into an increasingly twisted world of hypermasculinity and brutal fraternity that he cheerfully embraces... at least, in the beginning.
Structurally, The Art of Self-Defense invites comparisons to Fight Club in the way that it follows an unassuming white collar worker down the rabbit hole as he becomes part of a bizarre subculture of male aggression (one that primarly involves cisgender men meeting at night to pummel one anther silly, no less). Stearns' script doesn't try to reinvent the formula so much as put a fresh spin on it by using dryly dark humor often delivered in the style of a Wes Anderson comedy. As a result, the film plays out as an amusingly quirky satire for its its first half, especially in the scenes where Casey - acting on Sensei's orders - abandons his milquetoast existence of being constantly humiliated in favor of belligerently asserting himself (violently, if needs be) at work, and listening to comically loud heavy metal in his car.
By the time its second half rolls around, though, The Art of Self-Defense begins to feel less like a dark lampoon and more like a horror comedy (if not a flat-out horror movie). Along the way, Casey's search for confidence morphs into a disturbing descent into darkness full of bleak jokes that are just as likely to make you cringe as they are to prompt nervous laughter. In a way, the film's nondescript setting and historical period (based on the technology and interior design, it's meant to be somewhere in the 1980s or '90s) creates a barrier that makes it easier to handle the comically toxic masculinity on display here than if it had taken place in, say, the present-day. Stearns and his DP Michael Ragen also tend to keep the camera at a distance from the action and film everything as though it's being seen from the point of view of a curious scientist observing the behavior of these extremely insecure men.
In many ways, Casey and his odyssey are a chip off the same block for Eisenberg; where his versions of Mark Zuckerberg and Lex Luthor dealt with their feelings of emasculation by turning to the internet or projecting his insecurities onto Superman, his character in The Art of Self-Defense tries to overcome his sense of inadequacy by embracing what he perceives as a macho lifestyle. Eisenberg's droll delivery and anxious manner makes him an excellent fit for Sterns' comedic sensibilities, and it's hard to imagine another actor embodying Casey quite as well for it. He's matched by Nivola's similarly deadpan approach as Sensei, a man who talks about martial arts and swift acts of revenge with the same stoic intensity as he does the pricing for karate gear. Imogen Poots rounds out the trifecta here as Anna, the sole female instructor at Sensei's school and a hardened brawler who's learned to take her teacher's unapologetically sexist remarks in stride as easily as she doles out a beating or brushes off a strike to the face.
If The Art of Self-Defense is not as stylistically assured or thematically ground-breaking as Fight Club, in some ways it improves on that cult classic by never unintentionally making Casey, Sensei, or their peers' conduct seem "cool" and always portraying their ultra-masculinity as being either ridiculous or, during its second half especially, downright horrifying. Still, because it's such an effective skewering of exaggerated machismo, it makes for an overall pitch-dark movie that's difficult to recommend to casual moviegoers who're merely expecting an off-kilter comedy about that guy from The Social Network learning karate. For those who are game, however, Stearns' wry examination of fragile masculinity is worth the time to check out.
The Art of Self-Defense is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 104 minutes long and is rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
- The Art of Self-Defense (2019) release date: Jul 19, 2019