Writer-director Riley Stearns reaches for arch misanthropy with his sophomore feature The Art of Self-Defense, a comedy of modern masculinity stuck in the stone ages. Gifted with a smartly assembled cast playing to their typical types but with some freshness, the film is assembled with competing doses of dark humor and familiarity. But despite some of its early laughs, the film’s influences are all too apparent to establish a voice all its own. As the film strays into thriller territory, the themes grow stale and its satire somewhat compromised.
Jesse Eisenberg plays a catastrophically mild-mannered fiscal clerk named Casey, an outcast made through his own social timidness. After Casey is brutally attacked one night, he submits himself to karate lessons at a dingy dojo led by an intense white sensei played by Alessandro Nivola. Casey initially struggles to find the confidence he seeks, remaining on the outside of the sensei’s devoted group of male followers. Then he accepts an invite into the dojo’s night classes, and things take a quick turn into underground crime.
Tonally and thematically, Stearns seems to be chasing the likes of Office Space and Fight Club, or the kinds of films popular in dorm rooms and message boards alike. While some of the film works with its observational humor and ability to shock, it feels largely derivative in way that dampens most of its tension. The key problem is that originality was the key ingredient in what makes those films successful, and its the one that Art is most missing.
On top of this, it bears the closest resemblance to those films more loathsome qualities. Much as the film mines fun from skewering the futility and mindlessness of masculinity, it also accidents into reinforcing it as well. Casey is somewhat of a surrogate for blank slate males assimilating into the expectations of men, but the film also mocks him – his supposed feminine name, his awkward ashamed physicality, his pitiful sexual expression. The film may be wisest (not to mention funniest) when it views maleness as a cult, but it’s also clumsy for how it makes itself a proud member.
Among the film’s smoothest comedic achievements, however, are those of its primary actors. Imogen Poots does a more violent variation on her mysterious cynics she’s played in the likes of Green Room. Here as Anna, the dojo’s sole female member, she brings a bluntness to the proceedings that charms and quickly gets the audience on her side. Eisenberg is even more type cast in Casey’s pigeon-toed shoes, but still brings a pathos and subtly to Casey’s personal transformation. The best among them is the ever underrated Nivola, particularly attuned to precisely how strange and menacing his nameless villain should be. Nivola is the funniest piece of the entire film and in turn also the least laborious.
The Art of Self-Defense has its moments of unexpected laughter and worthwhile satire, but its lack of freshness makes for an ultimately flat experience without enough ambition to set itself apart.