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Review: The Art of Self Defense (2019)

The Art of Self Defense (2019)

Directed by: Riley Stearns

Premise: A soft spoken man (Jesse Eisenberg) is assaulted in a random act of violence. He enrolls in karate lessons at a local dojo headed by an intense sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

What Works: The Art of Self Defense is a dark comedy that is incisive, intelligent, and very funny. The movie dramatizes what’s popularly called “toxic masculinity” but—thankfully—the filmmakers avoid such buzzwords. The picture is initially about a man coping with his fear of the world but the focus of the story incrementally shifts to a critique of the ways in which men and the culture envision strength and how men’s desires and anxieties are weaponized against them. These ideas are underplayed in a way that’s effective. The Art of Self Defense is not a didactic movie. The themes emerge from the drama and the filmmaking. It’s thoughtful and has something relevant to say but the filmmakers soften the brunt of the message with interesting characters and good humor. The picture has several terrific performances. Jesse Eisenberg leads the film as a victim of violent crime who turns to karate to regain his self-respect and discovers a sense of belonging among the other men in the dojo. Eisenberg is perfectly cast in the role and the movie uses his strengths as an actor to great effect. Alessandro Nivola plays the dojo instructor and Nivola is also well cast. The physical contrast between Eisenberg and Nivola certainly helps but Nivola also delivers his absurd lines with absolute conviction, He makes it credible that these students would take him seriously while at the same time highlighting the ludicrousness and fraudulence at the heart of his instruction. Also notable is David Zellner as another karate student. Zellner’s character is a true believer but circumstances in the dojo shift in ways that confuse and bewilder him and his subplot adds some pathos to the movie. The tone of The Art of Self Defense is one of the film’s outstanding qualities. This is a dark picture with some heavy themes and the fact that the filmmakers are able to go to those places while making a movie this funny is an impressive achievement.

What Doesn’t: The Art of Self Defense invites comparisons to Fight Club and indeed there are several parallels between the two films. However, Fight Club was a broader and wilder show that was as much about capitalism as it was about masculinity. The Art of Self Defense is much more focused and restrained. It’s very funny but the film’s sense of humor is oblique and very deadpan. The pitch of the movie is perfect for what it is but The Art of Self Defense might be too offbeat for some viewers. This movie has a cynical and sardonic take on masculinity but the conclusion betrays those qualities. It wraps everything up a little too neatly; the finale suggests that poisonous ideologies can be contained but the rest of the movie points toward a different conclusion.

Bottom Line: The Art of Self Defense may be too offbeat for some viewers but it’s a terrifically crafted black comedy. Writer and director Riley Stearns has made a film that taps into this particular moment but also transcends it with a story that is worthy of comparison to Fight Club and American Psycho.

Episode: #759 (July 28, 2019)