Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as a victim who desperately wants to flip-the-script, in this cleverly-penned examination of toxic masculinity.
Casey (Eisenberg) works in accounting and basically takes shit from others for a living. His best friend is his boss - huh? - and he lives alone without a family member or friend in sight, along with his wimpy Dachshund. His life is so dry and boring, that even when he makes a late-night run up to a corner store for dog food, he buys a brand with plain packaging that is simply labeled "dog food."
But on the way home from the store with dog food in hand, Casey is jumped by a gang of motorcyclists, who proceed to beat the crap out of him and leave him for dead. The event triggers something inside of him, and he decides he's going to buy a handgun (or as he describes it to the clerk, a gun that will fit in his hand). During the waiting period required by law for a gun purchase, Casey happens upon an karate dojo where he meets the eccentric Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, who is fantastically deadpan in the role) who proceeds to change his life.
But not in the way you would ever expect. "The Art of Self-Defense" is not a feel-good story, but is in fact a very sharply-written exploration of what it means to be a man in today's world. It has a pessimistic view, that's for sure, and a distinctly hilarious perspective delivered by writer/director Riley Stearns, whose work here feels like it might have picked up a few moves taught by Sensei Noah Baumbach.
There is a hierarchy at the dojo, and the only female student, Anna (Imogen Poots), can't seem to advance her status. Yes any astute viewer will understand that the karate studio in this movie represents much more than that, but even the casual viewer will find laughs in the absurdity that comes a mile-a-minute, especially in the first half (my favorite line may be when Sensei describes how the dojo's founder, the Grand Master, was "tragically killed in a hunting accident...when he was shot in the face by a gun").
Speaking of guns, there are also some messages about gun safety, violence, use and their role in toxic masculinity, all done with a keen eye for satire. Eisenberg is perfectly cast as a dorky pushover with a brashness bubbling just under the surface, and Nivola is a scene-stealing presence throughout.
"The Art of Self-Defense" isn't about self-defense at all, or if it is, it is saying that the best defense is to take the offensive. It subverts your expectations at every turn, and does a great job of developing its characters without having other characters explain everyone else's intent. Riley Stearns shows that he has a few tricks up his sleeve, and that he's not afraid to pull any punches.
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Sport.
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada.
Written and Directed by Riley Stearns ("Faults").
"The Art of Self-Defense" opens in limited-release on Friday, July 19th, 2019.
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