An arch and wickedly funny portrait of American male masculinity in the 21st century, one could argue that writer-director Riley Stearns’s The Art of Self-Defense is the kind of film we desperately need in this day and age of toxicity. In telling the story of a weak and ineffectual accountant named Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) who joins a karate dojo after being brutally attacked and left for dead, Stearns channels the deadpan and absurd humor of Wes Anderson and Christopher Guest. And what can sometimes come across as overly precious subtly takes on greater power as Casey embraces his masculinity, speaking in a robotic monotone that implies strength and power. It’s a killer joke, one that goes beyond the mere affect present in the film’s opening scenes.
Unfortunately, Stearns doesn’t trust his material, and opts to make his message painfully explicit in the film’s back half. He also becomes overly concerned with the machinations of his plot, with twists that any viewer can see coming from a mile away. The Art of Self-Defense ultimately loses steam the longer it goes on — save for a truly killer ending. Eisenberg is a pretty obvious choice for the lead here, but even still, he proves far more adept at dark comedy than one might expect. The true standout, though, is Alessandro Nivola, as the dojo’s Sensei, a man who firmly believes that heavy metal is the only masculine form of music that exists and who can somehow utter a line like, “I’ve found that her being a woman will prevent her from ever becoming a man” with breathtaking earnestness. This is an imperfect film, to be sure, but one that confirms Stearns — whose debut feature, 2014’s Faults, deserves far more love and attention than it received upon release — as a filmmaker to watch.
Published as part of July 2019’s Before We Vanish.