Review by David Baldwin
I have been trying to write a review for Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense for over a week now. I am at the point in my life where free time is slowly dwindling down, and adulthood and the responsibilities that come with it keep amping up. I do chores in and around the house, and by the time I get to writing, I just end up staring at a blank Word document and falling asleep. But in all of that time, I have not stopped thinking about Stearns’ film. It has lingered at the back of my mind, popping up when I least expect it and bringing me snide joy more times than I can count.
And I would like to think that would make Sensei proud. But I also think that he would consider me less of a man for feeling this way. Probably even less than that for using the words “snide joy” in a sentence.
If reading that sounds a bit toxic, offensive and more than slightly emasculating, than The Art of Self-Defense may not be for you. The tale of Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), his desire to learn how to defend himself, and his admiration and later obsession with the local dojo run by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) starts off innocuously and humourously enough. But around the halfway mark, it jumps the rails and morphs into the bleakest, darkest satire imaginable – something that practically wrecks of toxic fumes. And it happens to be one of the funniest comedies of the year thus far.
I wrote a few weeks back about how the studio comedy Stuber, starring Dave Bautista and Kumail Nanjiani, jabbed right at the beating heart of toxic masculinity. The film was consistently funny and seemed to have a lot on its mind in relation to a topic that has begun to plague an entire gender. I saw Stuber before The Art of Self-Defense, and in retrospect, I think that film was a bit too subtle and barely cracked the surface with its level of introspection. In comparison, Self-Defense practically devours that same heart of toxic masculinity, biting deeper and deeper until it becomes deeply uncomfortable and downright disturbing. And then it bites even deeper than that. It is not a stretch to say that the film feels very similar to Fight Club in its messaging about what makes a man and the things one has to do to become more like what society deems manly – just with a whole lot less schizophrenia and monologuing.
Stearns sets most of the action in a karate dojo in an unspecified time where answering machines and VCRs still exist (remember those?). By not going the contemporary route and relying on cell phones and social media, this allows for the actions and words of Sensei and his students to truly come alive, showing how easy it is to breed and harbour the kind of disgusting feelings that all too many men (myself included) have buried within themselves – some a little closer to the surface than others. I found myself empathizing more often than I would have liked, and saw a bit too much of myself in Eisenberg’s character Casey. And having trained in a karate dojo when I was much, much younger (around the time answering machines and VCRs still existed), I just kept smiling and laughing every time Sensei passed down another lesson because of how authentic it all felt. And the darker elements of the film struck me even harder, because they were just as real and brought back a few choice memories I would have liked to have forgotten (like when my Sensei called me a quitter when I decided to hang up my karate gi for good).
And while the majority of the male characters here are reprehensible jerks, the lone female character, Anna (the fabulous Imogen Poots), initially appears to be the voice of reason amongst all the obnoxious and deplorable behaviour. But she quickly dissolves her facade and shows just how easy it is to get corrupted by the kind of destructive forces that can make you feel absolutely powerless and weak.
All of these things may not sound very funny, but Stearns plays up so much of the dialogue in such a stilted, ridiculous way that all you can do is laugh and wonder why everyone on-screen is taking it so seriously. And though Self-Defense does become shockingly violent in some instances – to a point where my mouth was just agape with sheer bewilderment for a very long period of time – the majority of scenes are played with a humourous tongue-in-cheek bend.
Eisenberg is on point the entire time, firing on all cylinders and playing right into the kind of indie sensibility that made him a star in the first place. His work here reminded me a lot of his dual role in Richard Ayoade’s underappreciated enigma The Double in how he plays two sides of the same coin and how multi-faceted his approach was to both personalities. He is only playing one character here, but his transformation from reclusive and fearful big-hearted guy to an overconfident, arrogant and pompous asshole bro is truly one for the ages. The same goes for Nivola’s Sensei, whose ambiguous nature is what really drives the film. You are never able to get a full reading on him, and just when you think you understand all of his motivations, he goes ahead and does something completely unexpected and makes you change your thinking altogether. And he does this from his very first frame all the way up to his very last. Nivola has long been a supporting player, but he truly shines here and really comes into his own. His darkly twisted delivery of some lines is downright hysterical, even at its most poisonous and vile.
The pacing is not always the best and it will not be for everyone, but The Art of Self-Defense is hilariously bleak and truly one-of-a-kind entertainment. This is satire done right, driven by terrific performances from Eisenberg and Nivola, all centred around messaging that every man has probably heard and experienced far too many times. It is twisted and disgusting, but it says a lot about male culture – and shows how we really have not come all that far from what used to pass for being acceptable.
The Art of Self-Defense was released in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal this past Friday, and will begin expanding across Canada starting Friday July 26!