"Well, holy shit."
That was my response as the closing credits to writer-director Riley Stearn's The Art of Self-Defense began. Not in roaring amazement at the film I just saw but in muted astonishment. I walked into this film expecting something the trailer promised but got something more.
In the trailer, if I remember correctly, there were scenes of mild slapstick, some goofy dialogue, a couple bleak shots and a rawkin' funky upbeat instrumental. All this while quotes like "the black comedy 2019 deserves" and "fucking hilarious, an instant offbeat comedy classic" splash across the tightly edited footage. I personally don't disagree with the praise. but damn is that trailer a little deceptive. I went in expecting a movie that would be the equivalent of Jody Hill's Danny McBride showcase, The Foot Fist Way or maybe even an extended version of the relationship between Napoleon Dynamite's Rex and Kip. You definitely get some awkward banter akin to those two films but it goes down a bleaker path from there.
Much like Fight Club's The Narrator and Christine's Arnie Cunningham, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a kind, broken soul who takes his lumps on a daily basis whether it be his Maxim magazine-inspired co-workers or veritable strangers bad-mouthing him in French.
All he lives for is photocopied boobs, adult contemporary music, and his cute dachshund. In fact the way he talks to and dotes on his pet is frightening in that "hits way too close to home" way. Anyhoo, after being attacked one night by some rando motorcyclists, Casey looks for a way to fend for himself. After realizing he may not be ready for a handgun, he decides to visit a local dojo whose mantra is kick with your fists, punch with your feet. The school's sensei (Alessandro Nivola) goes simply by Sensei.
At first, he and his most devoted student, Anna (Imogen Poots), come off as quirky characters you'd find in the aforementioned films. We assume things may get quirkier and that Casey will come to the dark side, prevail with a new, balanced persona, and then the credits would roll. That doesn't happen. Things take a detour and we leave the quirkiness to visit more sinister stuff before those closing credits. The trip there is pretty surprising. It was to me at least.
This was an easy movie to like. I like pitch black humor that makes you question whether laughter is warranted or appropriate. There's a good bit of uncomfortable humor in this movie.
As usual, Jesse Eisenberg delivers. At first glance, his Casey is a powder keg cloaked in powerlessness and anxiety and it's pretty convincing. Same goes for Imogen Poots' and Alessandro Nivola's characters. Anna is, at first glance, merely an eccentric, overly devout student while Sensei initially seems like an eccentric, overly devout teacher. There is more to these characters and all three actors are more than up to the task of excavating the characters' psyches.
There's a possibility that folks may walk out of this film saying, "Well, that was strange." And they wouldn't be wrong. One thing that I liked about this film is how it seems to exist in a universe slightly different from our own. It's just a little off. Kinda weird in "where are the cellphones in this modern day movie" way. The satire in the world is so thick and involved that you neglect to ask legitimate questions like: "That person just got their ass kicked, are the nearby families not going to have a human reaction to the violence they just witnessed?"
Whether intentional or not, the movie has a message in the midst of the moral ambiguity.
You can call it a swipe at toxic masculinity for sure. Or in more apolitical terms, you could say the message is much more simple. "Don't be an asshole" works well enough for me.
The Art of Self Defense — Rated R. Directed by Riley Stearns. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, and Alessandro Nivola.