The Art of Self-Defense is a kick in the teeth — a twisted takedown of toxic masculinity. It’s also the funniest film of the year thus far.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey Davies, a meek accountant scared of everyone around him, especially the macho douchecanoes that society pressures him to follow. His fear grows after a motorcycle gang mugs him. Too impatient to wait for the background check on a handgun, he enrolls in a karate class. The sensei (Alessandro Nivola) is the sort of guy who’s clearly a jerk but the kind from whom you still crave approval. He’s the seemingly gentle jock in gym class who you hope will take you under his wing. Is it just me, or is this bringing back anxiety-inducing high-school memories?
Casey becomes hooked on the sensei’s encouragement. But as he rises through the ranks of the dojo, he sees the seedy side of the self-defense world. A fellow student named Anna (Imogen Poots) warns him of the sensei’s wicked ways, which become apparent in a night class as brutal as Fight Club. Like that classic, The Art of Self-Defense satirizes the idea that masculinity is all about physical intimidation and animal-like ferocity. Men being men apparently means beating the hell out of each other. (Fight choreographer Mindy Kelly brings a fierce authenticity to the film.)
Writer-director Riley Stearns effectively juxtaposes the savage violence with deadpan dialogue. At one point, Casey rips a newspaper out of an old man’s hands and calmly says, “I’m taking this. I care only about myself.” That kind of blasé narcissism stings all the more in the age of Trump.
You could argue that this film shows Eisenberg’s limited range — from ineffectual nerd to equally dorky asshole. However, this is his best, most nuanced performance yet. He makes us root for Casey at his most vulnerable and his most vicious. This is Eisenberg at the peak of his powers, giving us one of the year’s most complex, conflicted characters.
Nivola delivers one of his most powerful performances as well. He portrays the sensei as the human, dudebro equivalent of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey — cold, calculating, a complete cockface. He acts just human enough to convince you he has everything under control.
Although Casey is the protagonist, Poots’s performance makes Anna the beating heart of the film. She’s the conscience of the cruel karate cult. Poots captures her contradictory desire for both compassion and the chilled dish of revenge. She embraces the good guys but doesn’t suffer the fools among them. That’s what we need in the time of Trump — warm people still willing to call out others. Sure, “love thy neighbor” is a nice sentiment, but maybe the proud bigot displaying a “Make America Great Again” sign deserves a flaming bag of dogshit on his doorstep.
The Art of Self-Defense is a sharp, biting film that sinks its teeth into timely issues. But it will also make you laugh your ass off. This is the satire we need right now.