Riley Stearns’ THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE is an unconventional comedy about the perception of oneself. It’s about finding something within that you didn’t know was there, then bringing it to the surface, for good or bad. Mostly bad. It’s appropriate then that the film, despite its outward appearance as a typically quirky, indie, hipster-ish jest, belies the darkness hiding underneath its exterior.
In a role that doesn’t quite stretch his abilities, Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, an awkward and fast-talking nebbish. He works in an office where no one respects him, and in his free time, learns French and hangs out on the couch with his dachshund. On the way to the store to buy some dog food, Casey is mugged in the street by bikers. Determined to keep himself safe, Casey buys a gun, and as a further measure, enlists at a dojo run by a man who refers to himself only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). As Casey develops an obsession with the discipline of martial arts, his relationship with Sensei and the dojo’s other students becomes increasingly intense, and the rest of his life – that there is of it – spirals out of control.
I was a big fan of Stearns’ feature directorial debut, Faults, which deserved way more attention when it was released back in 2014. Much like he did with that film, Stearns packs THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE with a slower-paced, drier sense of comedy than the kind of rapid-fire silliness we’ve been conditioned to expect from Hollywood in recent times. There’s plenty of breathing space for jokes and awkward silences, with some genuine laugh out loud moments and at least a handful of chuckles.
It’s hard to resist comparisons with YouTube’s Karate Kid sequel series Cobra Kai only because it’s its closest contemporary, but the only thing it shares in common with Stearns’ film is their martial arts school setting and unconventional humor. Otherwise, THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE is a very different beast to that show’s mostly lighthearted 80s revival.
Don’t come in expecting Jesse Eisenberg to pull off a crane kick, or much of anything physical as far as karate maneuvers go. The action here is minimal and only in service of the story and characters. The focus is on eccentricity, and it’s not until later in the film that we realise what kind of characters we’re really dealing with. Around the midway point, things take a wild turn and become more twisted than we were originally led to believe. It’s best I don’t say anything more about where Stearns takes the audience and just let it creep up on you.
Nivola gives a wonderfully deadpan performance, managing to be simultaneously intimidating and funny. Jesse Eisenberg is… Jesse Eisenberg, but the movie moulds itself around him like it was always meant to be. Imogen Poots – who plays Anna, another student at the dojo – isn’t given a great deal to work with, but she compliments Eisenberg’s awkwardness admirably. I think I like Eisenberg in this more than anything else I’ve ever seen him in, and that’s probably because of the material. All of Stearns’ characters are, for want of a better word, weird. They’re not like any humans I know, and that’s probably for the best.
One odd thing that stands out, is that THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE appears to be set in the ’90s, with no cellphones in sight, and chunky CRT monitors on the characters’ desks. I can’t figure out what the relevance of the story taking place in the 90s is, as it doesn’t really add anything beyond a minor quirky distraction. I’m sure Stearns had his reasons, but they’re not evident on screen.
And just like that questionable aesthetic choice, not every joke lands the way it was intended. In addition, the runtime is a little stretched, with editing that could have been tightened in places, but I liked THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE. It has a unique, dark tone that makes its dojo well worth a visit.
With that in mind, I’ve been thinking of signing my daughter up for karate lessons when she’s old enough… but after this movie? Maybe not as much.
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE is part of the line-up at the Fantasia International Film Festival 2019.