The Art of Self-Defense (2019)
The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 44 min.

Release Date: July 19th, 2019 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Riley Stearns Actors: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello, Hauke Bahr, David Zellner

 


 

A

brutal attack by a motorcycle gang savagely jolts modest, mousy, and mild-mannered accountant Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) into reassessing his physical limitations. Determined to bolster his everyday courage, he initially opts to purchase a handgun. But when he passes by a karate dojo and becomes enthralled by the teachings of the enigmatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), he soon joins the day classes. Quickly obsessing over the martial art and the curious musings of its master, Casey begins altering his entire persona to match his leader’s vision. When he’s invited to the night class, where both the tutelage and the lessons increase dramatically in malice, Casey must decide how far he’s willing to go in his conversion into intrepidity.

The opening moments are largely unexpected, establishing a glimpse into the mindset of the main character, who inhabits an unfriendly world of slight abuses; he’s not bullied directly, but the people who surround him are far from benevolent. Meanness appears inherent; crabbiness is their default demeanor. Nevertheless, it’s humorous, perhaps predominantly in a pitiable way. Casey has few friends and no social skills, making him extremely awkward during interactions of any kind, lending to precarious chuckles and considerable sympathy.

In a setup that unintentionally parallels “The Long Goodbye,” Casey’s pet food excursion kickstarts a path of remarkable transformation; the normality of his comforting isolation vanishes in an instance of violence. Unlike in many dark comedies that teeter too closely to the line of revulsion, “The Art of Self-Defense” performs a commendable balancing act, refusing to reach a point of no return. Occasionally, the approach to the subject matter descends from uneasy laughter into notable anxiety, but it consistently rescues itself from being irredeemable. Casey may not be the perspective from which audiences wish to vicariously experience redemption, but he’s nicely delineated from the villainy of the unmistakable lead antagonist and the dojo’s microcosmic similarities to a racketeering gangster underworld. He may be an antihero, paired with the correspondingly lamentable instructor Anna (Imogen Poots), but he’s definitely not evil.

“There’s a lot of testosterone in this dojo.” Casey’s journey could be the making of a serial killer, or even a wannabe superhero like in “Kick-Ass.” But his character veers toward (though decidedly never equaling) the lunacy of “Napoleon Dynamite” enough times that it’s possible to forgive the deviations into unsettling morbidity. It’s part cartoonish comedy and part realistic dramedy, yet its strongest quality is the absurdist satirization of masculinity. As Casey transitions not so positively (more closely resembling a downward spiral) from a timid, self-doubting victim to a confident purveyor of pain, the film dissects – oftentimes with hysterical candidness – the expectations, standards, and diverse spectrum of masculinity. Through fear, intimidation, and humiliation sprouts a newfound surety that eventually escalates toward hyper-masculinity; here, both extremes are potent – and detrimental to contentment. In its quest to right the many wrongs, the finale is also hugely winning, managing to be perversely satisfying even as it revels in its darkly twisted sense of propriety. “He stole your dignity. Take it back.”

– The Massie Twins

  • 8/10