Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Director: Riley Stearns
Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Deadpan irony used to be a hallmark of cinema during the 1990s (think Slacker, Clerks, the works of Jim Jarmusch, and any number of angst-ridden indies like Reality Bites). They usually centered on a lonely male protagonist floating through a depressing existence. There was inevitably a female love interest (mostly there to reinforce the nerdy male’s journey of self-discovery) and occasionally, our sad American man got the girl and fulfilled his dreams. Writer-director Riley Stearns’s The Art of Self-Defense uses many of these tropes and attempts to invert them by centering his story inside a karate dojo where toxic masculinity thrives. The film’s time period is never explicitly established, but one can surmise from the clothes, blocky computers, and lack of cell phones, that we are squarely in the realm of the early 90s.
The obvious connection here is to 1999’s Fight Club; David Fincher’s epic satire about consumerism and the toxic American male, but The Art of Self-Defense lacks the daring of that film in that it never really implicates the audience. We are invited to dismiss account auditor Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), as a pathetic loser early on, and then revel in his eventual rise to douchey masculinity. There’s a lone female character here too, Anna (Imogen Poots), a children’s karate instructor stuck at the bottom of the dojo’s patriarchal hierarchy, and while Stearns attempts to subvert the idea of her being a simplistic love interest, she’s nonetheless little more than a thematic signpost. The film’s central dynamic rests in the push and pull between Casey’s meek loner and the uber masculine studio sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a man who rules with a chauvinistic iron kick.
Eisenberg is ideally cast as a socially awkward introvert looking to become what intimidates him, but the character is just a construct. His search for meaning is brought about after he’s mugged and brutally beaten, and the sensei’s no-nonsense masculinity is an appealing way to harness his hidden rage. Soon after joining the dojo, Casey is getting custom-made yellow belts, switching from listening to adult contemporary to metal music, and refusing to pet his dog for fear of coddling him. Nivola has fun rattling off Stearns’s arch dialogue and Poots delivers some fleeting moments of genuine emotion, but the problem here is one of tone. Many will claim a Yorgos Lanthimos influence, what with the way characters speak in a flat monotone, but the film more closely recalls the early work of writer-director Neil LaBute, whose In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors were stark examinations of toxic masculinity with a satiric edge.
However, The Art of Self-Defense never really complicates our feelings toward the subject matter in the way LaBute’s best films did. Instead, Stearns seems content to coast on purposefully stilted comedy interrupted by moments of grisly violence. Since the tone remains at a constant flatline, the instances of brutality feel ineffectual, but more importantly, predictable. We know exactly where this story is going, and Stearns doesn’t trust us to take the narrative in more transgressive directions.
Ultimately, the film’s dissection of what it means to be a man is no more insightful than the things its poking fun at, and seems especially galling given how it attempts (rather feebly) to place the power back into the hands of the disenfranchised female character by the end. There’s no legitimate point of view on this material and no real insight into these characters, and if we simply accept the fact that the whole thing is allegorical, then The Art of Self-Defense is about as provocative as a blunt-force kick to the groin.