The Art of Self-Defense
2019, R, 104 min. Directed by Riley Stearns. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., July 12, 2019
My, how our villains have changed. In the Nineties, a film like The Art of Self-Defense – one that explores the ways frightened men are indoctrinated into lives of violence – would feature some cartoonishly evil hate group at its center. Instead, we are treated to one asshole at a single dojo. Riley Stearns’ sophomore feature may have a lot of complex things to say about toxic masculinity, but one thing’s for sure: He’s not exactly puffing up the stakes to prove his point.
Casey (Eisenberg) is scared. After being mugged on the way home from the grocery store, Casey finds himself trapped in his home, struggling to run basic errands or look after his beloved dog. While flirting with the idea of buying a handgun, Casey stumbles across a dojo run by a local man known only as Sensei (Nivola), and he quickly discovers that learning how to defend himself brings a sense of order to his life. Initially, he is treated with the same disdain as Anna (Poots), the only woman in this misogynistic environment. The more Casey dedicates himself to karate, the more Sensei teases out his potential, until he is finally asked to participate in Sensei’s daunting "night class," a special arrangement for karate students who want to hurt the world as much as the world has hurt them.
There’s a strange artificiality to the dialogue in The Art of Self-Defense. Much of the writing in Stearns’ film possesses a lyricism that feels at odds with the matter-of-fact line readings offered by the actors. “This gun was imprecise and boorish.” “You? Karate? Impossible.” “I realize now that her being a woman will prevent her from being a man.” On the surface, it seems forced and mannered – you cannot help but visualize the words on the page as Eisenberg and Nivola speak – but as this dialogue continues, you realize the film is working because of the film’s self-awareness. Stearns (who previously dissected a different kind of cultish behavior in Faults) imbues his characters with an element of theatricality that actively rubs your face in his central metaphor. There’s nothing subtle about the movie, but why would there be? Stearns has very little interest in being coy with his exploration of toxic masculinity.
And without Eisenberg, none of this would work. Some performances live beyond the confines of the screen; Eisenberg has spent the past 15 years playing characters defined in opposition to traditional masculine stereotypes, and here a strong performance – and a little bit of intertextuality – make Stearns’ script feel dangerously timeless. Ah, and yet. The Art of Self-Defense flirts with greatness early and often, but even with Eisenberg and Nivola offering career-best work, the tone proves a bit too tricky for Stearns to hold together. This is a movie that is funniest when it isn’t trying to be funny at all. The more organic humor is injected into the script, the further it strays from the pitch-black satire of the first hour.
In the end, the film is caught in a tug-of-war between absurdity and sincerity. Early, as Casey peers at his broken life from between his curtains, Eisenberg’s damaged sincerity adds humor to some of the film’s more idiosyncratic bits. As it unfolds, however, Stearns pushes his characters directly into the path of these jokes, causing the tonal balance of the first act to wobble a bit. The Art of Self-Defense is a good movie – it may even deserve its place on some mid-year lists – but it cannot quite figure out how to make the most of its own theatricality. Like Anna, this one seems cursed to fall just short of black belt status.
For an interview with writer/director Riley Stearns about the film and his own adventures in martial arts, read "Leaders and Followers," March 8.