Jesse Eisenberg definitely has his comedic dojo working as he goes to the mat in the name of toxic masculinity in Riley Stearns’ dark and perceptive “The Art of Self-Defense.” It’s easily Eisenberg’s best work since portraying evil genius Mark Zuckerberg in the equally edgy “The Social Network.” And when you get down to it, the two roles are eerily similar in that both are monsters born of societal indifference; unhip outcasts meekly clamoring to be noticed until fate steps in with one reimagining mass media, the other karate.
Yes, karate! Oh, what a kick it is, too, as fists and feet fly. And where they land, nobody knows. At least not us, as Stearns keeps you perpetually off-guard with a series of unexpected twists yielding humor so ebony-hued it earns a black belt in satire. And what has Stearns’ mitts up is an American landscape littered with senseless violence born out of a ridiculous definition of machismo, the kind that got Donald Trump elected president.
In this uncertain age, you’re either manly or you’re weak, and Eisenberg’s put-upon Casey Davies is certainly the latter. Soon after we meet him at his nondescript accounting job, he’s mugged and brutally beaten by a gang of well-dressed motorcyclists. The event has understandably left him traumatized, which is why he enters the neighborhood karate school. Greeted by the dojo’s Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, excellent as always), Casey declares his want to become the kind of man he now fears. It’s a goal the chronically passive-aggressive Sensei is all too happy to help him achieve.
It’s here that you expect “Self-Defense” to evolve into just another “sports” movie with a training montage building toward the “big match.” Ah, but you are so wrong. What Stearns has in mind is something nearer to Kafka, as insanity becomes the norm with blood surely to be bled. There is a woman, of course. That would be Hannah, the dojo’s children’s instructor played by Imogen Poots, the actress with what has to be the industry’s biggest, most expressive eyes. But she’s no ordinary love interest. She’s more of the school’s token female, a pawn for Sensei misogynistic rants about how “she being a woman will always prevent her from being a man.”
That absurd quip will give you an idea of the mindset of Stearns, who writes with the same sort of warped whimsy as the polarizing Yorgos Lanthimos employed in “The Lobster.” You either go with the rampant eclectics or you walk. Me, I ate up every word of an economically written screenplay that verbally lacerates current American culture, especially its insane love for guns. The digs are subtle but effective; and the insights clever if not profound.
Ultimately, we’re left to contemplate what defines a man. Is it his character or his preening masculinity? It’s a question, Stearns has a lot of fun satirizing via Sensei’s demand that Casey swap out his easy-listening rock CDs for heavy metal, speak German instead of French (They surrender too easily) and forsake his beloved Dachshund for a German shepherd. By the end, you’re thoroughly convinced our only salvation is in handing women control of the world.
Be warned. Despite the laughs, “Self-Defense” is often violent. But it’s never gratuitous; more of a statement on our culture’s eye-for-an-eye mentality in the age of the NRA. The movie IS about karate, but it’s guns that Stearns is pointing at; albeit hilariously, via the unfortunate death of the dojo’s Grandmaster, tragically killed while hiking in the woods by a hunter who mistook him for a bird, AND in the film’s best scene, which I’ve been sworn not to give away.
Equally effective is the evolving bromance between Casey and Sensei, who takes his newest pupil under his wing and grooms him into a literal killing machine. Both Eisenberg and Nivola hold nothing back in calmly visiting some rather dark places (think “Fight Club”) in defining what it takes to be unafraid at a time when everyone from the president to your local TV news is bottling and packaging fear. Do we choose the same path as Casey? Or, do we embrace the true intent of the martial arts to emphasize self-discipline, character and restraint over brute force? In this case, Stearns accentuates the latter to embrace the former with his film emerging the consummate winner.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Art of Self-Defense”
Cast includes Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots.
(R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.)