The Art of Self-Defense

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Riley Stearns’ movie feels like he was channelling the Coen brothers, or more like Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite). Sometimes the monotone, deadpan dialogue was humorous. Other times it took you out of the picture, wondering if this was just one big satire on toxic masculinity that felt more like funny YouTube videos than an actual full length feature. Yet halfway into the movie, these characters and the strong performances, sold me on what I was watching.

Just as the monotone cadence will take some out of the film, Jesse Eisenberg playing a more neurotic character than he’s ever played, might also. He’s the type of guy that is so scared of everyone, he flinches when someone at the office walks by him. And if a couple of guys are having a risque conversation in the break room, he’s either too nervous to join in, or is so obviously worried about the words that just came out of his mouth, he rushes out.

He plays Casey, an accountant whose biggest joy in life seems to be feeding his weiner dog and watching old Westerns. One night, when he runs out of dog food, it’s off to the store. He is attacked by some thugs on motorcycles, which leads him to join a karate class once he gets out of the hospital. The sensei at the dojo is played by Alessandro Nivola (American Hustle, Face/Off, A Most Violent Year), and his performance is my favorite thing in this. It’s great that he’s a bit dopey, with his moronic catch phrases and quoting rules that hang on the wall (“tap or take a nap” in reference to what you should do if someone is choking you out). It’s also smart that Stearns didn’t make him too stupid. He projects just enough menace to have us thinking that Casey might be getting in over his head with these martial arts classes.

Anna (Imogen Poots) is a tough student, who has to deal with the sensei’s sexist ways, although she has no problem taking out her aggression on other students in the class.

The Sensei takes an immediate liking to Casey, and the audience will wonder if it’s because he has some sinister plans or that he just knows it’s a fresh face that won’t think his mystical BS is so corny. Once Casey gains some confidence after taking a few roundhouses to the face and punches to the gut, he’s puffing out his chest a bit more at work (it’s another time I wished the director would’ve had him scale it back, because it’s hard to buy that any person would talk the way he did). But hey — who wouldn’t feel like a stud going from a white belt to a yellow (for those that don’t know, there are still lots of colors to go before you get to the black belt).

Tonally, the movie is a bit of a mess. It’s also a tad derivative. I sometimes thought of the much better Office Space, American Psycho, Fight Club, and a scene with an arm breaking and an incinerator had me think of Midsommar

It does have a terrific, thoroughly satisfying ending, and…all of the dark comedy ended up winning us over.

3 ½ stars out of 5.


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