Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a pushover. I guess. That or he’s just polite and socially awkward. Either way, he desires to be more of a “man.” When a motorcycle gang violently mugs him, he looks into protection. A gun? No. Too volatile and dangerous. Karate? That makes sense to Casey.
He is brought under the wing of “Sensei” (Alessandro Nivola), who leads an intense martial arts dojo. When Casey joins, he finds validation that he doesn’t find anywhere else in his present life. He is given positive reinforcement for his progress and starts making social connections with Sensei and the other students. Because of this, he puts all of his time and effort into moving up the ranks in the dojo.
Riley Stearn’s The Art of Self Defense is a satire of masculinity and emasculation in the same vein as Fight Club with a dash of Yorgos Lanthimosian tonal energy injected for good measure. The film hits the nail of poking fun at toxic masculine tropes on its head so hard, and this bluntness yields comedy. But it also yields narrative clunkiness.
Most characters speak with a similar voice, and they often come off as unnatural. This lends itself to the Lanthimos-inspired stilted dark comedy tone, but it is not as well-executed as it is in a Lanthimos film. This unnatural delivery is most evident in the uneven performance of Eisenberg, who at times is filled with turbulent emotion and at others speaks with a robotic staccato almost devoid of emotion.
The exception to these character issues is Nivola, who gives what will surely be one of the best comedic performances of the year. His line delivery makes for the best laugh lines in the film, and his intense energy makes his character the most engaging to watch.
The Art of Self Defense is quite funny. While its dark comedy plotting presents a sour aftertaste—the actual plot is quite dour and grim—there are a number of laugh out loud moments. One particular bit involving casualwear karate belts is my personal favorite of these moments.
The satire of The Art of Self Defense is broad, and it travels to an indeterminate end. It does mirror Fight Club quite a bit, and the comparisons don’t help the case of the satire, as Fight Club performs the same commentary on masculinity more succinctly. Of course, that film had the benefit of creating its satire by channeling the biting voice of Chuck Palahniuk.
All the same, The Art of Self Defense is a different moviegoing experience in a Summer defined by samey and lackluster films. The film has a certain luster to it, albeit an inconsistent and, at times, derivative one.
The Art of Self Defense: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)