‘The Art Of Self-Defense’ Theatrical Review
I’m pretty sure at some point in our lives we have all thought about taking karate, with some of us taking it a step further and actually trying out some kind of self-defense. The reasons for this can vary. For some it is a part of their culture. Some might have seen it on TV and thought it would be cool to try, or some might see it as a way to stay in shape.
For me, it was when I was in the first grade. I had seen it on TV and saw some of my friends had taken karate, and so I begged my mom to let me do it. Finally, I joined a class and could not have been more excited. I really couldn’t wait to fight someone or break a board. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens in class, and after a few exercises of doing nothing but throwing my fist against air I lost interest and quit. I never took karate lessons again. In retrospect, that was because my reasons for wanting to do it in the first place were wrong. My reason for wanting to punch someone, or for fun instead of self-defense, was the result of my view of masculinity, even at such a young age.
Karate is first and foremost a discipline of self-defense, but because of associated traits such as leadership, courage and even violence that are also found in traditional masculinity, people such as myself at the time may see karate as a tool associated with it. At first view of the trailer, The Art Of Self-Defense looked a comedy about adult’s solution to being bulled. Although it is still a comedy, it is also a dark film that explores the theme of masculinity. In many ways I was reminded of Fight Club, but I felt this was a more entertaining film that people in this day and age might relate to better.
Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is a 35-year-old accountant with no friends, unless you count the cute dachshund that waits at home to be fed. He spends his days at work, nervously moving around the office while hoping he won’t offend anyone. While his coworkers sit in the breakroom making jokes Casey stands at the corner listening while longing to be part of the conversation, but can’t because he’s afraid he’ll be laughed at because of his lack of masculinity to join in their office trash-talking. He is that high school nerd who would be an easy target for any bully.
At home, his answering machine makes him feel inferior when telling him “You have only one new message. No one else left you a message.” One night while buying food for his dog, a gang of bikers assaults Casey who’s faces are hidden by their helmets, leaving no reason for the attack except that he is weak and easy. Casey looks to find a solution to no longer be the victim, and that leads him to sign up for karate lessons run by a male who goes only by the name “Sensei” (Alessandro Nivola). He is the alpha male Casey needs, and after a few lessons, he graduates to the next level of yellow belt. With his obsession of karate classes to become a man, Casey slowly transforms into what he hope to fight against, a real jerk.
Riley Stearns has directed and written a film that takes a humorous tone with the subject of masculinity. Stearns pokes fun at it with jokes, and then moves to the darker side of it the as the film progresses. He takes elements from other comedies that have made fun of the idea of what it takes to be a man, but turns it from a comedy to somewhat of a horror film by showing the ways the toxic masculinity culture can be terrifying in this world today. This perspective makes the film a unique addition that should be watched.
Jesse Eisenberg has always been an interesting actor to me. Because of the success of the Social Network, he was given roles one might think he would do well in, but they have bombed. This is certainly his best role since that film, playing someone people were assholes to, who turns into an asshole himself. He already has the dweeby physique that makes you believe he is afraid of everyone including his own shadow. This makes it more believable that anyone can become a horrible masculine douche canoe. Before taking karate lessons, he is this nice guy you are hoping can catch a break. As he progresses through class he turns into a reflection of himself, buying into the ideas of masculinity so much that he can’t even pet his dog anymore because it has become too coddled. Even reaching this toxic point Eisenberg is awkwardly funny.
As Sensei, Alessandro Nivola is the John Kreese of the 21st century as far as karate instructors go. His presence is imposing and aggressive, but he brings just right amount of charisma to be the person Casey looks to for guidance on what it takes to be a man. In the first meeting the Sensei tells Casey, “This is your belt. Do not come to class without this belt. It is yours. It is sacred…There will be a $15 charge to replace a lost belt.” Nivola brings a comedic presence to a role normally meant to be something serious. Whenever he talks, it always requires some type of Karate move. He instructs Casey that he should have German Sheppard and should be listening to hard rock if he wants to be taken seriously. He everything with deadpan stare that makes this one of the funniest roles I’ve seen all year. In fact it might maybe be my favorite performance of 2019.
People will obviously compare The Art Of Self-Defense with other films, most notably Fight Club, and it shares aspects that justify the comparison. To me it’s different and a step up because it does a better job mocking the ideas of masculinity. Although the film is set in a fictional world, its ideas are very much real. Although you’ll certainly laugh most of the time (and you should because it is a comedy), there are parts that are shocking and really dark. The Art Of Self-Defense is one of the most outrageous and hilarious movies I have seen in sometime, and is easily going to be in my top ten films at the end of the year.