Published on July 22nd, 2019 | by Dan Nicholls0
The Art of Self-Defense
Jesse Eisenberg stars in The Art of Self-Defense, a black comedy from Riley Stearns that is clever, funny, and twisted enough to keep things entertaining.
What if there was a spin-off of Napoleon Dynamite that followed Kip Dynamite on daily trips to Rex Kwon Do except it starts off all indie-cool cheeky but then jeers violently with a dark left turn? You’d get The Art of Self-Defense, more or less, and perhaps that pitch will work as a reliable barometer of your expected enjoyment level. It perhaps doesn’t reach the gloriously deranged depths found in the works of Jody Hill (including Observe & Report and The Foot Fist Way, which are clear influences) but it’s a black comedy with a clever screenplay that jolts the picture awake whenever the gag starts to wear thin.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey, the meekest of the mild worker bees at a non-descript office living an inconspicuous bachelor life. After being viciously attacked at random by a gang of motorcycle thugs Casey finds the empowerment he needs to rebuild himself at a karate dojo run by the enigmatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Advanced student Anna (Imogen Poots) catches Casey’s eye while he desperately seeks approval from his master. As his dedication to the dojo increases, a new layer of the discipline peels back to provide Casey with a rude awakening.
The film’s first twenty minutes or so feel less off kilter than the rest of the film, which wavers in and out of varying degrees of outrageousness. Black comedies are the trickiest of sells and have to walk a sharp tightrope. It’s such a tricky balance that sometimes tipping the scales with just a toe over the line can result in autonomous audience alienation. Thankfully writer-director Riley Stearns corrals all his many ideas relatively successfully. The Art of Self-Defense features peaks and valleys that respectively showcase the filmmaker’s deft understanding and overindulgent use of genre tropes while overtly saying a thing or two about toxic masculinity.
A successful foothold in the darkness sets the tone and the comedy matches its depravity. Laughs are hearty but often brutal in nature – you’ll oof with your ha’s but that’s exactly what you want to get out of a good black comedy. Uncomfortable feelings are part of the deal and The Art of Self-Defense has no shortage of cringes as Casey navigates narrative and moral turns. A couple surprises and strong WTF’s along the way help the pace keep up and the cast matches the example set by their fearless leader Eisenberg. It’s often uneasy but ultimately twisted enough to leave a bruise.