Art of Self-Defense, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/12/19 13:30:31
SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: From the big desktop computers in the offices to the jokes built around answering machines rather than mobile phones, it seems likely that Riley Stearns's "The Art of Self-Defense" takes place too early for the phrase "toxic masculinity" to have been in common use, so he has to address that sort of issue even more plainly. The result is a delightfully weird deadpan comedy that is laser-focused on how something can be both awful and absurd, filled with laughs for those who enjoy dark, screwy humor. It's got no place for subtlety but that's far from the only way to land a good joke.Initially, those jokes are at the expense of Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), an accountant in his mid-thirties who, though he doesn't seem to be doing anything particularly offensive, is almost reflexively insulted by everyone from his co-workers to tourists passing through the diner where he eats. One night, it's worse, as he's mugged by a group on motorcycles as he goes out to be food for his dachshund. He initially considers buying a gun, but during the mandatory waiting period he comes upon a karate dojo and is soon taken in by its masterful, poised Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). It soon becomes an obsession, and even though just a yellow belt, he is given an invitation to join the mysterious night class.
Jesse Eisenberg has a lot more range than he's usually given credit for, but it's undeniable that roles like this are where he excels: Casey is a social misfit who seemingly can't speak in any way that's not awkward, so that even when he acclimates or takes on less milquetoast qualities, it becomes a sort of twisted, dorky perversion of supposed cool. Stearns delivers the characters blunt, comically plain dialogue and Eisenberg makes it especially leaden, and the audience has to kind of enjoy the way lines will just drop to the floor and lay there as they come out of his mouth, seemingly crude and wooden but always landing just the way they are supposed to. He's so good at that sort of thing that one almost doesn't notice just how painful and heartfelt Casey's anxiety can be.
Alessandro Nivola, on the other hand, gives a different sort of comedic performance that is also one of the most masterful bits of deadpan comedy one will ever see. Sensei's words are no less plain than Casey's, but they roll smoothly off of Nivola's tongue, sounding so reasonable coming from this handsome, charismatic man. They are awful, of course, the words of a man horrified at the idea of displaying any trait that might somehow be regarded as feminine said with such easy confidence that one simultaneously recognizes it as ridiculous but also has a little bit of horror at how firmly lodged some of what he's saying is in people's heads; Sensei just happens to be smooth enough that he seems like a proper masculine paragon of controlled violence and strength.
In between is Imogen Poots as Sensei's best student Anna, played by Imogen Poots with the most overt rage on display, more emotionally abused than anyone else in the movie but, as a woman in a situation where the sexism is so flagrant, both more and less incentive to lie to herself about it. She and Stearns use Anna's clencthed-fist nature for both comedy and horror, letting both spring from the same source. The filmmakers happily blur the line between goofy slapstick violence and the sort that has real, horrifying consequences, and the fact that Anna never simply becomes a plot device that is useful in some way is an example of how well this works. A lot of movies run out of steam or feel hypocritical when they've been getting laughs from violence once the story gets to the point where they have to acknowledge that it's bad, but The Art of Self-Defense gets some of its greatest guffaws once that point is past.
Of course, one's mileage may vary with this; there are wobbly bits in the story and Stearns's fondness for the obvious, plain-spoken comedic observation is very much not for everyone. The film's got a twist that's obvious enough that it barely deserves that name, and a person can get kind of impatient waiting for Casey to catch up, and in the meantime the joke about people thinking Casey is a girl's name feels like it should have been reworked once the deep-voiced Eisenberg was cast. The film recovers well, at least - even if the big twist is obvious, the details of it can be quite enjoyable, and the filmmakers seldom stumble in terms of whether something is dark, dark-but-funny, or funny-but-weird.There's a surprising and often invisible amount of thought put into this often-silly movie, and it deserves a bit more than the cult-classic status it will likely achieve. What it's getting at is often easy to sneer at for its touchy-feely-ness, but this movie makes the point that being an abusive jerk is bad for everyone in raucous, hilarious manner.
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