THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE (2019)
Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, David Zellner, Phillip Andre Botello,
Jason Burkey, Mike Brooks
Directed by Riley Stearns
“The Art of Self-Defense” is a dry, dark, and dogmatic comedy with a first-rate Jesse Eisenberg as a sheepish account who begins taking karate classes after being mugged. Alessandro Nivola delivers a superb performance as the charismatic sensei who takes Eisenberg under his wing, while the supporting cast features solid performances by Imogen Poots as a children’s MA instructor and David Zellner as an ambitious student. The sophomore film from former Pflugerville resident and Austin native Riley Stearns (“Faults”) operates like a kettle on a slow boil releasing its steam in the final act.
Jesse Eisenberg has perfected the role of the self-conscious character. Here he plays Casey Davies, a loner who lives with a dachshund and works as an accountant. Stearns doesn’t give us a year but judging by the lack of cell phones, wood paneling, answering machines, and CDs, we’re in the 90s.
Casey is mugged one night while walking back from the grocery store with dog food by several thugs on motorcycles, their faces shielded by helmets. The next day he stumbles upon a karate school in the area and steps inside to watch as the self-possessed sensei (Alessandro Nivola) wraps up a lesson. Despite the dark journey, Stearns has mapped out for the audience, it’s easy to see why anyone would follow the cool-headed and charismatic dojo owner.
Sensei takes Casey under his wing, after the novice student confesses to being mugged as his motivation for taking the class, “I’m afraid of other men.” He also explains “I wanna be what intimidates me.” A transformation begins as Casey ditches Adult Contemporary music for Metal while embracing his newfound machismo. It’s quite enjoyable seeing Eisenberg functioning as a cocky prick. The audience sticks with Casey only because he forces most of his aggression against his tormentors but Stearns, who also wrote the film, throws in a few cringe-worthy moments to test our loyalty.
The relationship between Sensei and Casey becomes paternal which causes concern from fellow student Anna (Imogen Poots) who also teaches the children’s karate class. In case you weren’t sure if Sensei was an actual misogynist, he informs Casey that he only let Anna teach the class because of her “natural maternal instincts” and then remarks that she’ll never become a Black Belt because “Now I realize that her being a woman, will always keep her from becoming a man.” Yes, much of the film’s dialogue is absurd but not unfathomable especially in this age where there seems to be a sexist-led campaign against the #MeToo movement.
Poots, a fine actress who made her debut in 2006’s “V for Vendetta,” keeps the story and these men in check as Anna becomes Casey’s safety net as the film turns to the dark side revealing a twisted plot that won’t be disclosed here. David Zellner stands out as an ambitious student who befriends Casey, although kindness is replaced with resentment and you can probably predict how that will play out.
“The Art of Self-Defense” should be required viewing for students taking Social Studies, the topic “How Toxic-Masculinity is detrimental to society.” Stearns twisted comedy is very funny as the laughs are interspersed between some very distressing moments. The cast is first-rate especially Eisenberg and Nivola who are best when sharing the same scene.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in Houston at Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra and in Austin at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.