Machismo and sanctioned violence of any kind get a sinister, satiric, roundhouse kick to the face in The Art of Self-Defense, the new dark comedy from writer-director Riley Stearns.
Meek accountant Casey (a totally on-point Jesse Eisenberg) is a nerdy wimp on all fronts. His coworkers can’t stand him, and French tourists mock him while he sits in a café, obliterating him with verbal shots in a foreign language. The exclamation point on his wimpy nerdiness is that he has just learned French via books on tape, so he understands all of the jabs being thrown his way due to his studiousness, and says nothing—nerdy wimp personified.
Casey runs out of dog food for his adorable dachshund and must take the long, lonely walk to the local grocer in the dark of night. A motorcyclist with a rider on back stops, asks if he has a gun, then rides away. On his way back from the store, that same motorcycle gang kicks the unholy shit out of him.
Seeking help, Casey visits a dojo where he encounters Sensei, played by veteran actor Allessandro Nivola in a star turn that might perhaps get him the sort of outstanding notices he’s always deserved. Sensei is at times helpful in Casey’s quest to become more self-assured, but Sensei also has an evil side. Be wary of the night classes, where he has no problem breaking a man’s arm in two to demonstrate one of his twisted rules for the martial arts. He’s so self- assured in his toxic masculinity that he knows such an act will produce no lawsuits.
Speaking of that toxic masculinity, it starts to spread in Casey’s system like venom after a manly snake bite during a manly man hike. He’s changing, almost like a robot now programmed to preach the Sensei’s doctrine of manly man behavior in all aspects of life, even down to denouncing the weak breed of dog sitting on his couch. Casey becomes so obsessed with karate that he has a yellow leather belt custom made so that he can wear his it all the time, even when he’s not kicking people in the face.
Imogen Poots contributes to the nastiness as Anna, a should-be black belt being subjugated by the misogynistic Sensei. Her showdown with fellow student Thomas (Steve Terada) shows that a destructive streak runs through her as well. Poots is her usual strong self here, at time as scary as anybody in the movie. David Zellner will break your heart as the friendly Henry, perhaps the only nice person in the whole film. And nice people in this movie are really out of place.
The humor in Stearn’s script is drier than burnt toast left out in the middle of the desert with a magnifying glass perched over it. The actors don’t get laughs by telling jokes. They more or less get the laughs by being so hilariously awful you can’t believe it, especially Nivola. Teeth getting knocked out of somebody’s face have never been this funny.
While Eisenberg can be a bit of a one-note performer, he plays that note well, and this is his most memorable character in many moons. Like his Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Casey is a total ass, a weaselly jerk that you love to hate. His progression from meek guy trying to make conversations in the break room at work to strangely masculine guy doing pushups in the break room at work is a lot of fun to watch.
The movie has some mystery that isn’t all that surprising, but you won’t care. The payoff is satisfying, not to mention totally insane. The Art of Self-Defense is the funniest film of the summer so far, and Nivola’s work within it counts as his career best.