Sometimes, you just have to embrace your public persona. That’s not to say you shouldn’t avoid being typecast if you can help it, but when an actor like Jesse Eisenberg plays a character like the one he plays in writer-director Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense, in many ways it’s totally expected. What’s unexpected here is the ways in which that nebbish character is used to make a profound statement.
I assumed I was walking into a subtle comedy about a nerd learning karate. What I got was so much more. This is a satire of toxic masculinity, and a damn effective one. Stearns’ dialogue is hilariously clinical, reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. For example, an in early scene, Casey (Eisenberg) enters his office break room (a beige, sterile, nerfed place, like many of the sets here) to find three male colleagues openly and plainly discussing their favorite sexual positions. Their “prowess” is intimidating to Casey, as are most of his interactions with other men. One night, while out buying dog food for his dachshund, he’s stopped by a gang of motorcyclists and beaten to the point of hospitalization. This is the last straw. Casey decides to buy a gun and attend karate lessons.
The Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) is as strangely frank in his masculinity as Casey’s co-workers. But he’s also kind and understanding; they have a good chemistry as student and teacher. There are a few things that stick out to Casey as odd at first, but his desire to defend himself is greater than his desire to question The Sensei’s methods.
Then things get a little strange. Casey starts attending “night classes,” which are said to be more intense than the day classes, and boy, are they ever. From here, we learn more and more about the bizarre, cult-like atmosphere surrounding The Sensei and how he’s taking gleeful advantage of it – including his poor treatment of Anna (Imogen Poots), an advanced student who’s constantly singled out because, as he says, “her being a woman will prevent her from ever becoming a man.”
All the way through, this movie made me laugh and keep laughing. It’s in the details and in its unpredictability. The general arc of a twist one may see coming, but how Casey will react is anyone’s guess. And holy hell, does this thing have a killer ending. Stearns’ script is as great as anything I’ve seen this year. I can’t express the joy I felt taking this ride and feeling like I was in good hands the whole time. Its satirical blend of plot, dialogue, and theme make a perfect summer cocktail: light and effervescent comedy with a tremendous aftertaste that any cinephile will adore. I honestly can’t stop thinking about it. It gets every point across about this topic without ever feeling preachy and always remaining true to its characters and setting. It was really a joy to watch this unfold.
The Art of Self-Defense is now playing nationwide