The Art Of Self-Defense: A Refreshing Karate Chop To The Funny Bone
Writer/director Riley Stearns’ latest effort is just as surprising and refreshingly offbeat as his cult-centric debut, Faults. Audacious and kooky, The Art of Self-Defense is a wholly original dark comedy with something more to say. This one is sure to deliver a karate chop straight to your funny bone.
After he's attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, timid bookkeeper Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei's mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality and hyper-masculinity, presenting a journey that places him squarely in the sights of his enigmatic new mentor.
Interestingly enough, both of Riley Stearns’ features focus on cult-like mentalities and characters who wind up in situations that are bigger than they initially realize. They both also feature similar set design (with an emphasis on natural wood surfaces) and also open in diner setting with a scene that gives the viewer immediate context into the inner turmoil and psyche of their protagonists, which adequately set the stage for the events to come.
In the open of Faults, Stearns shows us how desperate and financially ruined Ansel (wonderfully played by Leland Orser) is in an absurdly comical altercation over hotel vouchers and a $4 breakfast. With The Art of Self-Defense, our “effeminately named” protagonist, Casey Davies, sits alone in a diner, listening to a French couple talk shit about him in their native tongue. Just as with Ansel, Stearns immediately shows — “shows” being the operative word — us two important things about Casey; he’s content to sit idle when he’s the source of ridicule, and he’s a quick learner and knows more than he lets on (as he is shown learning French in the following scene, and seems know a fair bit, enough to say that he knew what the French couple was saying about him).
We later see the unimposing and socially awkward Casey at work where he comically fails to make small talk with his male coworkers, whose response only makes him feel smaller and more insignificant, before he is brutally accosted by a gang of mysterious bikers. The traumatic event Casey suffers causes his feelings of fear and inadequacy to totally consume him, and it serves as the catalyst for his peculiar and graphically violent journey into the world of martial arts lead by his sensei, who is aptly named “Sensei” (played brilliantly by Alessandro Nivola).
This oddball and deliciously niche comedy had me in an stranglehold of laughter for nearly its entirety. It’s probably the greatest reexamination and takedown of masculinity since David Fincher’s Fight Club, albeit through a much different means. Stearns’ has a more simple approach to his visuals than Fincher, with framing that favors static shots and negative space that put a lot of weight on the performances. Tonally, he favors wry humor and awkward exaggerations of reality. It shares some similarities to Napoleon Dynamite in that regard, but given that it has something more to say, it also bears semblance to Yorgos Lanthimos’ idiosyncratic style that has swept the mainstream ever since 2015’s The Lobster (though arguably, it’s been a through line in a Stearns’ work).
A large part of the film is waiting for our protagonist to catch up to us, which makes the bends and forks in the road visible before they arrive; however, while you may guess where the The Art of Self-Defense is headed, you’re never fully sure how it will get there — and the getting there is the fun. It may veer too heavily into the deadpan for some (another reason for the Lanthimos parallel), but it takes on its meaty subject matter with deliberate blows that quietly boil into a surprising crescendo. It has some really sneaky, low key zingers and several roundhouse kicks of gut-bursting laughs — you won’t really be able to look at a belt the same way again — and like most of the great comedies, it has something deeper to say.
It’s ultimately about toxic masculinity and the dangers of “boys’ clubs,” but it has some things to say about women and femininity by proxy, which are just as potent. The dojo’s sole female student, Anna, is often overlooked by Sensei, who comically muses at one point to Casey, “You know, I’m starting to think that the fact that she’s a woman will always prevent her from being a man.” And The Art of Self-Defense targets that “Man’s world” mentality and beautifully dismantles it, taking everything to gloriously absurd extremes (some of which come out of nowhere). It’s a critique of our times that cautions us to be wary of how our fears can turn us into the thing we were afraid of, whichttps://www.viddy-well.com/reviews/the-art-of-self-defenseh, in turn, can cause us to inflict our own pain onto others, creating a perpetual state of cyclical violence that is only broken when patriarchy is destroyed. Or, at least, that seems to be Stearns’ final ruling.
The film’s superb performances, which are uniformly great, make its messaging all the more sharp. Jesse Eisenberg does a fantastic job in the lead. He is a black belt in the art of social awkwardness, and his straight-faced delivery makes the humor resonate so wonderfully. Alessandro Nivola is absolutely hysterical while being imposing, delivering his best performance to date as the hyper-masculine Sensei, with Imogen Poots giving the film a nice added bite.
Recommendation: Definitely don’t sleep on this; it could be the new cult comedy sensation.
Rating: 4.5 slow motion kick-punches outta 5.
What do you think? Did you love the film or was it too deadpan for you? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!