This quirky, dark comedy about toxic masculinity seems trapped by its stylistic choices.
I really wanted to love this leftover. Starring deadpan performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, it felt like just the right kind of quirky dark comedy. The subject – a timid man getting sucked up into the toxic masculinity of a smooth-talking martial arts instructor – was intriguing. It looked like a thought experiment: what if Daniel San joined Cobra Kai instead of getting sage advice from Mr. Miyagi?
Unfortunately, tt was in and out of theaters in the blink of an eye, so I had to wait for November to take another look at it. It doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. It’s not bad; it has that stilted, absurdist style of a Yorgos Lanthimos film, and like those films it has strong character actors. It just can’t quite decide which side of farce it wants to land on.
The Art of Self Defense (2019)
Casey (Eisenberg) is as mild mannered as you can get. He’s a fastidious accountant by day, and a devoted dog owner by night. That’s about it. One night that quiet routine is destroyed when a biker gang thrashes him within an inch of his life.
As he recovers, he grapples with helplessness. He attempts to buy a gun, but when the permit takes too long for his frayed nerves, he opts to join a local Karate gym. The instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) quickly lures him in with his philosophy of alpha male dominance and martial arts. As he advances in ranks, Casey is initiated into a darker version of the Karate school, filled with late night fights and murderous competition.
Director Riley Stearns chooses to create an atmosphere of absurdity and surreal menace by having his characters all play their exaggerated characters with little affect. It’s a style you see often in the comedies of Wes Anderson, or the chilling satires of Yorgos Lanthimos. Having seen his short film, The Cub, it seems a favorite style for Stearns as well.
Having warped personalities present their lines in a deadpan, literal fashion, you get an edge to what would otherwise be comedic farce. Anderson uses this to make his characters silly. Lanthimos uses it to make his characters monstrous. Stearns seems caught in the middle. A lot of what his cast does should read as funny. Much should read as sociopathic. It never reconciles, so the jokes are muted and the social critique lacks teeth.
The strongest part of The Art of Self Defense is the casting and characters. Despite his reputation for manic roles, Eisenberg plays Casey as extremely introverted and self conscious. Despite his lack of social subtlety, you feel his emotional strain keenly. When he’s on the edge of panic after the attack, you get a heart-rending recreation of PTSD.
Imogen Poots plays Anna, the most talented/dedicated woman at a school that specifically denigrates the possibility of talented and dedicated women. Her plight is the most overtly geared to social critique. Whereas Casey’s social isolation presents as a borderline spectrum disorder, Anna’s lack of affect feels like a conscious, seething repression. Casey may lack emotional intelligence due to a chance of fate; Anna ruthlessly eliminated them to avoid being the “emotional woman” of stereotype.
Alessandro Nivola’s portrayal of Sensei is enigmatic. He’s written as an over-the-top stereotype of the “Alpha Bro” that could easily turn into broad comedy. Instead, Nivola plays him with such sociopathic sincerity that you have no other choice but to realize that he is 100% sincere (and unaware) about his misogyny and narcissism.
Confused Young Man.
The ideas in The Art of Self Defense are timely and engaging. We’re living through the societal terror of an army of disaffected, socially isolated young men who are turning towards the fascist trends of extreme hierarchy and violence. It’s just as easy to believe that a Casey would fall into an online hate group as an ethically challenged Karate school.
Despite my admiration for the films ideas and fantastic cast, The Art of Self Defense just doesn’t quite work. The characters are too exaggerated to really resonate. I get what they are meant to symbolize, but I always know that they are here as symbols, not actual people. I’ve met plenty of people who are 90% a Casey, an Anna, or a Sensei. I’ve never met the 110% caricatures seen here.
By being too obvious and pointed, the film looses its edge. When the film wants to evoke real dread, it robs the film of credibility. When it wants an uncomfortable laugh, the underlying toxicity makes humor unpalatable. I’ve seen the film compared to a dark version of The Karate Kid, and as an ironic version of Fight Club. It actually winds up stuck somewhere in between.