clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘The Art of Self-Defense’: Bad mojo (but a few good laughs) at the macho dojo

Jesse Eisenberg returns to his sweet spot in a blunt satire of masculine overkill

Jesse Eisenberg plays a sad sack who is transformed by a toxic karate class in “The Art of Self-Defense.”
Bleecker Street

“The risk of accidental death drastically increases with a gun in the home. … In a violent confrontation, an armed victim is much more likely to be killed than an unarmed victim. Suicide is more common with gun owners too. [PAUSE.] You’re really going to love owning a gun.” – Gun shop salesman to new customer in “The Art of Self Defense.”

Casey is a painfully shy, socially awkward, 35-ish accountant whose only friend is his loyal dachshund. His life is so sad and lonely, even his home answering machine weighs in.

“You have ONLY one unheard message,” says the voice on the machine. After Casey plays the message, the voice says, “No one else left you a message.”

That’s one of many sly, absurdist touches in writer-director Riley Stearns’ “The Art of Self Defense,” which serves up a number of dry, deadpan comedic moments before exploding into a brutal and blunt satire of poisonously abusive masculinity, old-school gender stereotypes and our violence-soaked culture.

The first rule of “The Art of Self Defense” is there’s no way I’m NOT going to talk about “Fight Club,” because the influence is obvious.

Jesse Eisenberg, who is a master at playing passive-aggressive, most notably as Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” is well cast as the sad-sack Casey, who looks like the “Before” picture in every supplement ad ever.

Casey works in a drab office and lives in a drab apartment. (Everything is bathed in suitably depressing and unattractive tones of browns and greens, reflecting the utter lack of color in Casey’s deadly dull life.)

Late one night, Casey ventures out to buy dog food — and on the way home he’s assaulted by a gang of motorcycle-riding thugs who beat him to within an inch of his life.

Now he’s REALLY afraid of the world.

Still recovering from his injuries, Casey stumbles across a local dojo, tentatively enters — and decides he’ll take karate lessons.

This is the moment when “The Art of Self Defense” turns away from its “Karate Kid” setup in drastic and warped fashion. The attack by the motorcycle-riding thugs on the likable, wimpy Casey mirrors the attack by the bicycle-riding hooligans on the likable, wimpy Daniel LaRusso — but whereas Daniel comes to learn karate and life lessons from the wise and kind Mr. Miyagi, Casey hooks up with a dojo with a decidedly Cobra Kai vibe.

Alessandro Nivola strikes just the right blend of imposing/impressive and laughably pretentious as Sensei, who is known only as Sensei.

When Sensei hands the beginner’s white belt to Casey, he says with grave sincerity:

“This is your belt. Do not come to class without this belt. It is yours. It is sacred. [PAUSE.] There will be a $15 charge to replace a lost belt.”

Casey quickly becomes obsessed with his classes and with Sensei, who tells Casey if he wants to be a real man, he should stop listening to soft rock and get into speed metal, quit the French lessons in favor of learning something more masculine, like German — and seek violent revenge on his assailants.

To sum it up: Casey turns into a real, shall we say, jerk. All aggressive and no passive. Which makes him a perfect fit to join Sensei on a truly dark and disturbing journey.

Imogen Poots’ Anna, the lone female at the dojo, is a brown belt with a skill set second only to Sensei’s — but she is marginalized and ridiculed by the misogynist Sensei and his longtime disciples, who strip down to give each “cool down” massages (seemingly unaware of the obvious homoerotic element to this ritual), and laugh at the poor sap who has to team up with Anna for a massage, because she doesn’t possess the hand and arm strength to get in there and really work those muscles.

We feel for Anna. Perhaps she’s the sole voice of sanity and humanity at the dojo, and she can save Casey before his taste for violence spirals out of control.

Then again, maybe Anna is as bat-bleep crazy and bloodthirsty as the men, and she’ll be the death of Casey. You’ll see.

Bold but inconsistent, outrageous but not all that shocking, “The Art of Self Defense” never reaches its full potential, but lands more than enough punches to warrant our attention.