The Art of Self-Defense is writer-director, Riley Stearns (Faults), latest feature starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots. The film follows Casey, played by a charismatic Eisenberg after he is attacked at random on the street and decides to enlist at a local karate dojo to learn how to defend himself. Once he joins, Sensei, played by an extremely talented Nivola, brings him under his wing to mentor him through life’s everyday struggles by having Casey connect with his masculinity.
Before I move further on in this review, I will be discussing different aspects of the story that will disclose broad strokes of the story’s plot. This is your spoiler warning if you want to have a fresh viewing of the film, watch it, and come back to read this review. Also, I’d like to throw a quick shoutout to Patrick Coyle-Simmons for inspiring me to write movie reviews again, if you haven’t read him, go check his stuff out, he provides a great perspective on film.
Writer-director Riley Stearns has somehow managed to merge films like The Karate Kid and Fight Club into one cohesive, hilarious, and smart hit. The film’s examination of bro-culture and toxic masculinity is balanced by its use of dry humor, violence, and weirdness.
The film is centered on Casey and his longing for a life with more confidence and purpose. Throughout, he is a living doormat that everyone walks over until one night a group of people jump and brutally put him in the hospital. It’s after this seemingly random act of violence he joins a dojo run by an eccentric sensei who works with him to hone in on his machismo.
From this point on in the film, Stearns plays with a variety of dramatic tones from other movies like Fight Club and Napolean Dynamite to showcase the perils of masculinity and “bro-culture.” The end product is a strange, hilarious, and moving piece that does just enough to distinguish itself from previous films.
Moreover, The Art of Self-Defense is elevated by Jesse Eisenberg hilariously quirky performance when placed opposite the serious Poots who plays Anna. You can tell how much fun Eisenberg is having in this role and it works even better given the absurdity of everything that transpires in the film. I am convinced Casey is how Jesse Eisenberg is in real-life.
When Eisenberg isn’t the focus, and we shift to characters like Anna and Sensei; it is then when the themes of the film of masculinity, violence, and the consequences of bro-culture come to fruition.
Ann represents the moral compass that’s desperately lacking in a dojo occupied entirely by men. Casey seeks to use his newfound skills and power learned from bro-culture to hurt those who have otherwise made his life miserable. Sensei embodies the destructive and manipulative power that thrives in a toxic masculine setting. All of this culminating for a weird and engaging experience.
The film does have some pacing issues, particularly after it is revealed that the people that beat Casey within an inch of his life are from the dojo in a twisted effort to recruit more members. The reveal isn’t exactly profound, and Stearns seems to struggle with answering the questions of the film and progressing the story to its conclusion; a showdown between Casey and Sensei.
It goes without saying, this film will certainly not be for everyone. It benefits from its performances, but at times it is strange and hyper-violent. If you like your humor dark and can stomach disturbing sequences, The Art of Self-Defense is must-watch satire. If not, you may want to stay home.
3.5 / 5 stars:
The Art of Self-Defense is elevated by a dedicated Jesse Eisenberg and supporting cast along with stellar direction from Riley Stearns and offers enough of a compelling take on masculinity and bro-culture to stand out.