Machismo and sanctioned violence get a sinister, satiric kick to the face in The Art of Self-Defense, the new dark comedy from writer-director Riley Stearns.
Meek accountant Casey (a totally on-point Jesse Eisenberg) is a nerdy wimp on all fronts. His co-workers can’t stand him, and French tourists mock him while he sits in a café—completely obliterating him in a foreign language. The exclamation point: He has just learned French via books on tape, so he understands all of the jabs being thrown his way … and he says nothing. Nerdy wimp personified.
Casey runs out of dog food for his adorable dachshund and must take a long, lonely walk to the local grocer in the dark of night. A motorcyclist with a second rider stops, asks if he has a gun, then rides away. On his way back from the store, that same motorcycle duo kicks the unholy shit out of him.
Seeking help, Casey visits a dojo where he encounters Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola, in a star turn that might get him the sort of attention he’s always deserved. Sensei is at times helpful in Casey’s quest to become more self-assured—but Sensei also has an evil side. Be wary of the night classes, during which he has no problem breaking a man’s arm in two to demonstrate one of his twisted rules for the martial arts. He’s so self-assured in his toxic masculinity that he knows such an act will produce no lawsuits.
Speaking of that toxic masculinity: It starts to spread in Casey’s system like venom after a manly snake bite during a manly man hike. He’s changing—almost like a robot programmed to preach the Sensei’s doctrine of manly man behavior in all aspects of life. He even denounces the weak breed of dog sitting on his couch. Casey becomes so obsessed with karate that he has a yellow leather belt custom-made so that he can wear his yellow belt all the time, even when he’s not kicking people in the face.
Imogen Poots contributes to the nastiness as Anna, a should-be black belt being subjugated by the misogynistic Sensei. Her showdown with fellow student Thomas (Steve Terada) shows that a destructive streak runs through her as well. Poots is her usual strong self—as scary as anybody else in the movie. David Zellner will break your heart as the friendly Henry, perhaps the only nice person in the whole film. And nice people in this movie are really out of place.
The humor in Stearns’ script is drier than burnt toast left out in the middle of the desert with a magnifying glass perched over it. The actors don’t get laughs by telling jokes; they get laughs by being so hilariously awful that you can’t believe it, especially Nivola. Teeth getting knocked out of somebody’s face have never been this funny.
While Eisenberg can be a one-note performer, he plays that note well, and this is his most memorable character in a long time. Like his Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Casey is a total ass—a weaselly jerk that you love to hate. His progression—from a meek guy trying to make conversations at work into a strangely masculine guy doing push-ups in the breakroom—is a lot of fun to watch.
The movie has some mystery that isn’t all that surprising, but you won’t care. The payoff is satisfying, not to mention insane. The Art of Self-Defense is the funniest film of the summer so far, and Nivola’s work within it counts as his career best.
The Art of Self-Defense is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).