Directed by: Riley Stearns
Written by: Riley Stearns
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Alessandro Nivola, Steve Terada, Davis Zellner
Masculinity, after all of these years, remains undefined because of its toxic nature. A proper discussion cannot be held about it because it garners too many emotions certain men refuse to tap into. One aspect, however, that plays into it surrounds violence and the way men glorify it and the fantasies of inflicting it.
While living a normal life as an accountant, Casey Davis (Jesse Eisenburg) doesn’t bother anyone and goes about his routines when one night a random group of masked bikers viciously attack him. Following the traumatic event, he considers purchasing a firearm for protection but then comes across a karate dojo. Within it, he finds an instructor willing to teach him the tenets of the art form and how to become a real man.
Despite little to no fanfare upon its release, this film brings a different perspective on the ideals of toxic masculinity in a hilarious way. What Casey learns from his very peculiar instructor named Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) involves what it takes to be an actual man. Part of that includes listening to hard rock instead of contemporary junk and getting a German Shepherd instead of the tiny lap dog Casey has at home. I’m sure the film could have continued with owning a massive truck instead of a Prius and so on. Aspects of a man that truly have no bearing to being a good man, but rather having the appearances. The continual progression of Casey into this line of thinking really drives the point home with the casting of the protagonist.
The Art of Self-Defense does not display the first time Jesse Eisenburg has played the type of character that shows cowardice in the face of evil with Zombieland. He has the nerdy guy look, who aspires to become a tougher man look and demeanor going for him, which has brought him consistent work throughout his career. This role screams out Eisenburg and he delivers once again with a performance that shows physical vulnerability but also a mind ready to be manipulated.
Through balancing its tones, this film lands its blows with precision. It can certainly be labeled as a dark comedy with moments that left me unsure if I should gasp or laugh. The interplay between the serious and the funny struck a chord that worked because of the ridiculousness of the masculine ideals that Sensei tries to push on Casey. Nothing can truly be taken seriously because the character seems like he’s from a different world, but the film reminds the audience that he’s no joke. Part of that comes from the writing but also through Alessandro Nivola’s hilarious performance. Sensei becomes so wrapped up in the traditions and tenets of karate that he loses sight of what it all means in reality. The portrayal of this character will make or break the experience because the audience has to buy the power and the stupidity of the character. While it might not work for others, it certainly did with me.
The film also displays an incredible amount of violence to the point of it being uncomfortable to witness. The intentional violence seeks to serve the point of the story and I found it be very clever because of how grueling it became. As men, violence has the perception of being cool but this story tries to find the line that pushes it beyond what makes it uncomfortable. We’ll happily watch people beat each other’s brains in UFC or boxing and cheer when an NFL player completely lays out another. Men, again I am being general here, love violence through the consumption of those sports and the tendency to love war and action films. It plays into this violent fantasy and The Art of Self-Defense pushes against this fascination towards violence. Think of liking cake but then being forcefully fed that treat for hours upon hours to the point of revulsion. That message became loud and clear and really resonates when looking at the story as a whole.
Plenty to enjoy in this story, which does remind me of Fight Club obviously. Its comedy mixed with the violence serves as a warning sign of how masculine ideals might not be the best, especially when seeing who defines them. It has some great reveals and the way the plot unfolds works so well culminating to a spectacular conclusion.