Art of Self-Defense
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Film Review: ‘The Art Of Self-Defense’

Novice karate student seeks manhood in dark satire

Jesse Eisenberg develops a karate obsession in Riley Stearns’ ‘The Art of Self-Defense.’

Quién es más macho? Certainly not Casey, the hapless, sad-sack protagonist of The Art Of Self-Defense.

Casey’s self-imposed quest to overcome his fear of, well, everything is at the heart of this dark, subversive black comedy that skewers the popular notion of “manhood.”

Written and directed by Riley Stearns, the movie begins with a simple enough premise, like one of those Charles Atlas body-building ads that used to be found in comic books in the ’50s and ’60s: nerdy little guy suffers humiliation and decides to shape a new life for himself as a tough guy. Casey, played by Jesse Eisenberg in a state of all-consuming anxiety, wants to be a “real man” in the worst way, and that’s exactly how he begins to achieve his goal as his journey becomes ever more brutal and surreal. The movie is like a fever dream of Fight Club, as reimagined by Woody Allen.

Eisenberg’s Casey is an accounting drone so faceless his fellow employees don’t even know who he is; he can’t hang with the trash-talking guys in the break room at work. Even his phone answering machine disses him: “You have only one message. Nobody else left you a message.”

One night, walking home with a bag of doggy chow for his only companion—his Dachshund—he’s beset by a gang of helmeted bikers who beat the tar out of him for no reason. Determined to stop being a victim who’s afraid of everything, Casey enrolls at a karate school run by a fierce alpha male who goes only by “Sensei” (Alessandro Nivola). “I want to be what intimidates me,” Casey tells his new mentor.

He’s come to the right place. Sensei rules his dojo with an iron fist (and foot), and tolerates no perceived weakness, not even from a novice like Casey. After a few painful humiliations, Casey learns enough moves to graduate to the next level, yellow belt. But—surprise!—his newfound abilities do not automatically guarantee the respect he craves. For that, he has to engage in ever-more-draconian behavior, which eventually begins to nag at his own inner moral code. When Casey is invited to start attending Sensei’s exclusive and mysterious night classes, the question becomes how much of himself he is willing to give up to become a monster of his own creation.

Some satirical bits are predictable (although still amusing), as when Sensei schools Casey in more “masculine” lifestyle choices. But it’s silly when Casey gets real leather belts made for his classmates in their appropriate karate-level colors, and Sensei is absurdly touched by the black one he receives. You can get a black leather belt at any Kmart. A subplot about Anna (Imogen Poots), the only female at the dojo, never quite gels; she’s just there to provoke some trendy feminist ire over her ill-treatment.

But the movie scores points in many more subtle moments. A gunshop dealer explains to Casey the principle of handgun registration, saying, “You can’t just walk in off the street to buy a gun to shoot somebody. You have to wait two weeks to do that.” Even the guys in the break room roll over in obedience when Casey puts on the appearance of a bully; that’s what they respect. And in a twisted narrative full of surprises—never assume you know where this movie is going—the finale packs the most explosive punch. 

THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE

(***) 

With Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots. Written and directed by Riley Stearns. A Bleecker Street release. Rated R. 104 minutes.

Film Reviewer at Good Times |

Lisa Jensen grew up in Hermosa Beach, CA, watching old movies on TV with her mom. After graduating from UCSC, she worked at a movie theater, and a bookstore, before signing on as a stringer for the chief film critic at Good Times, in 1975. A year later, she inherited the job. Thousands of reviews later, she still loves the movies!

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