The Art of Self-Defense

art_of_self_defenseSTARS4Most movies are easy to explain why they’re good.  Maybe the relatable story transcends time or perhaps the heartfelt performances make you feel genuine emotion.  Others have virtues that are harder to define.  The Art of Self-Defense is a punch to the gut.  It can be a shock but it’s also extremely effective.   Some viewers won’t warm up to it.  This is a dark film.  Let me clarify.  It’s a comedy that will make you laugh but the movie extracts humor out of unsettling things.  Writer-director Riley Stearns has a weird and off-kilter sensibility.  It can be off-putting at times, but the screenplay is so audacious and unique, I was thoroughly entertained.

Our tale concerns Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a nebbish accountant who is both emotionally and physically weak.  We first encounter our hapless hero while he eats dinner by himself in a restaurant.  A french couple sits down near him and begins to make fun of him in their own language.  In the next scene, we observe him driving home with French language tapes in his car.  We now realize he understood every word they said.  That’s funny initially but then it’s a painful realization.  He wasn’t oblivious to what they were saying.  He just sat there taking it.  The film indulges in that atmosphere.  He lives alone with his dachshund.  At work, he’s the odd one out.  His young male co-workers are caricatures.  They sit around and debate manly things.  This doesn’t sound like a real conversation but rather what an outsider thinks a group of guys steeped in bro culture would talk about.  There’s a subtle difference and therein lies the gag.  One night Casey is attacked by a roving motorcycle gang.  He offers no resistance whatsoever and they beat him up pretty badly.  Frightened, he goes to purchase a handgun.  The discussion with the salesman is a particularly amusing exchange.  Casey doesn’t leave with a gun.  He’ll have to wait for a background check before one can be issued.  On the way home, he happens upon a karate dojo.  He goes inside and meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).  Yes, that’s how he introduces himself.  He invites Casey to come back for a free class the next day.  What develops is kind of an absurdist hypothesis if Woody Allen joined Fight Club.

Sinister, intense but also abnormally hilarious, The Art of Self-Defense is the second feature from writer/director Riley Stearns.  His impressive debut, Faults, was a video-on-demand release in 2015.  This is another awkward portrait of how humans on the periphery seek community with one another.  The interactions are wonderfully embodied by a small, efficient cast.  In his nervous demeanor, Jesse Eisenberg is timid and unsure.  He gains our sympathy.  He begins karate lessons because “I want to be what intimidates me.”  Alessandro Nivola is memorable as his martial arts teacher.  The actor delivers his lines with deadpan enthusiasm.  The setting appears to be our current world but the stilted monotone dialogue of these characters often feels like a parallel universe.  Nivola has us believe that his character has faith in his methods no matter how ridiculous they may ultimately seem.  Sensei seems to genuinely care about helping Casey build up his courage.  That is key to the power of his performance.  Together they form a bond.

The Art of Self-Defense recounts a simple fable of how Casey learns to stand up for himself by taking karate classes.  It’s the developments that propel this ominous tale into the peculiar.  Sensei becomes his mentor and attempts to mold Casey into the man he envisions him to be.  The class is filled with highly impressionable pupils (Phillip Andre Botelo, Steve Terada, David Zellner).  There is actually one woman, Anna (Imogen Poots), in their dojo too.  She teaches a children’s class as well.  Despite being more experienced than the other students, “Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man” Sensei explains.  He seeks to masculinize every aspect of Casey’s life with various principles.  A German Shepherd is a better pet than a dachshund.  Study German, not French.  Stop listening to adult contemporary.  Choose heavy metal instead.  The script is satirizing masculinity or alternately the teacher’s understanding of it.  Confidence could have been the uplifting quality to which he ascribed.  He wants to mold this beta into an alpha but Sensei takes the idea beyond the realm of self-improvement.  The relationship between virility and violence is the connecting thread of this satire.  As Casey descends down a vengeful path toward self-discovery the surrealistic milieu hits three beats for each one it misses.  That’s OK.  It’s that adventurous spirit that makes this presentation so creatively exciting.

07-24-19

5 Responses to “The Art of Self-Defense”

  1. Great review. what an interesting story. definitely looking forward to this.

    Like

  2. Punch to the gut? I think you mean a punch that left the imprint of a kick 😉

    Bizarre movie. Does get better as it went on in my opinion. Not always the biggest fan of Eisenberg but he’s perfect in these offbeat movies.

    Like

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