Jesse Eisenberg is a twerp falling down the toxic-masculinity rabbit hole in Riley Stearns’ insightful black comedy.
It can be dizzying to see so many movies wear their settings like a badge of honor. Pop culture becomes a flourish, technology a blemish, and look-at-me dialogue fills the air with… well, that depends on just how good or bad of a writer you have on your hands. It’s no wonder why so many writers pepper their scripts with explicit references. It’s just more relatable. It’s more alluring, though, when a movie like The Art of Self-Defense weaves its time and themes until they’re one and the same.
Writer/director Riley Stearns’s latest oddball exists in a bubble that’s easy to fall into. Its protagonist, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), is a schlub in his mid-30s. He stares at a CRT TV at home and CRT computers at work. His accounting job is like purgatory. Its office is a shadow of the ones featured in movies at the turn of the millennium, and the bro-ey coworkers that populate it feel like stereotypes yanked from Mike Judge’s garbage can. Casey’s life is a mid-2000s afterthought, and that’s exactly by design.
But with all the cheap cars, wireless landlines, and CD sets that teach Casey French while driving around town, The Art of Self-Defense never makes a point of its era. It’s just off the center you’d find in an arthouse theater when post-Jarmusch, post-Guest indie filmmaking entered the mainstream. The movie never says it directly, but Casey is the poster boy for alt-right incels, so when get gets beat up by people on motorcycles for no reason, he does the obvious: thinks about buying a gun.
Well, he does that for a second. Since background checks take a little while, he wanders into a dojo instead, setting eyes on a would-be karate cult. The sensei (Alessandro Nivola) only refers to himself by his title while others, like the black belt-hopeful Anna (Imogen Poots), abide by his rules. Anna does so a little bit more begrudgingly as she endures Sensei’s chauvinism, but for the otherwise-all-male group, they just want to assert their dominance. You know, become “real men”.
The Art of Self-Defense is a great use of Eisenberg, and a reminder of the talents he can have when working with the right material.
It doesn’t take long for Casey to fall under Sensei’s spell, redirecting his interests towards what he sees as more masculine. He also becomes a total jerk. However, the film’s meanness serves a purpose, with its script falling into a deeper divide between the internal and the external. Just as Sensei teaches his students to talk with their bodies, their actions increase in absurdity. All the while, Stearns and editor Sarah Beth Shapiro marry zooms and wide shots with a rhythm that’s as clinical and unfeeling as its characters.
But aside from the proficiency, The Art of Self-Defense is a great use of Eisenberg, and a reminder of the talents he can have when working with the right material. He isn’t too in his own head here. He’s deadpan because Stearns focuses his energy into physicality, not due to simple cadence. A similar affect applies to Poots, who brings a sense of humanity to a character that Stearns’s script can’t quite decide how to use. Meanwhile, Nivola captures the more straight-laced brand of toxic masculinity that the role exemplifies.
It’s when Stearns’s picture gets into its latter half that it shows itself to be a gratifying, if somewhat messy, experience. It zigs and it zags without a need to explain itself. To be fair, though, that isn’t saying a ton. It doesn’t get as far into it gender politics as it ought to, and the clean resolution implies that Stearns wasn’t functioning in as much of a grey area as he previously led on. Instead, The Art of Self-Defense is best viewed as a study of a certain breed of men—those who will turn into Men’s Rights Activists in the near future.
For now, we can laugh at their pasts. We can laugh at their idiocy, and we can observe how allusions of pop culture become illusions of grandeur. For some men, they’re one and the same. As for how we react to the present they’ve caused? Well, that’s another issue altogether.
The Art of Self-Defense judo-chops its way into limited release July 19 and is also playing at Fantasia International Film Festival 2019.