The Art of Self-Defense is the kind of film that continually evolves from the moment you start watching it. Actually, it probably starts changing even before that. Its plot description belies its actuality and even if you’ve seen director Riley Stearns previous off-kilter film Fault it won’t prepare you for how different this movie is and becomes. Think Sorry to Bother You in terms of how the movie gradually morphs into something you never expected but makes perfect sense within the context of the film’s world and its themes.
Also, The Art of Self-Defense is hilarious. Not gag reel, slapstick fun, but a smart, constant humor that will have you laughing your ass off from start to finish while simultaneously peeling back the movie’s themes on manhood, violence, and gender. It is the best movie I saw at SXSW this year, and I saw Us.
The Art of Self-Defense
Director: Riley Stearns
Release Date: June 21, 2019
Reading the plot description for The Art of Self-Defense is misleading. Your expectations for a movie about a guy who meets a girl when he signs up for karate classes after he’s mugged and stars Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots probably involve some sort of charming, indie rom-com with a manic pixie dream girl. It is not that, not by a longshot. Yes, Casey (Eisenberg) signs up for karate classes under the tutelage of the hyper-masculine Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) meeting Poots’ Anna, another student in the class, in the process, but from there the movie goes completely off the rails in all the best ways.
Stearns is quickly becoming known for his crisp, hilarious dialog that finds its humor in being insanely straightforward. The movie almost takes place in an alternate reality where social constructs are stated openly and obviously. Conversations are rigorously deadpan and human interaction is brutally honest. It creates a perfect tone for satire that pulls laugh after laugh while still playing with dark tones and complex issues. It’s delightfully weird and wonderful in every way and as the film progresses it just gets better and better, while making the ever spiralling world of the film grounded.
The other outcome of this style of writing and Stearns deadpan direction is that it calls out a lot of hypocrisy and idiocy within American society. Because people simply state what’s going on the movie can easily expose some of our stupidest social norms, especially with masculinity. The underlying themes of the film dissect what it means to be a man in America, an obviously relevant topic right now. Casey is routinely mocked for his feminine name and told he needs to like German more than French to become a true man. His new found masculinity is clearly toxic but it also gives him confidence and freedom. His co-workers no longer mock him after he punches his boss in his face. Violence is the answer to his weakness and the plot spirals more and more out of control as he attempts to fit into the form of manliness espoused by the world around him. It is both funny as hell and strikingly poignant, a rare balance for any film that The Art of Self-Defense nails.
Jesse Eisenberg is obviously perfectly cast for this, but it’s a rare role where he’s not just playing himself. His ticks and mannerism, which are what him a star, are subdued here. When we first meet Casey he almost feels like he’s on the spectrum until we realize that the universe he inhabits functions a little differently than ours. Poots plays off him just as blandly to the immense benefit of the film, though her character is neither developed as well or given as much to do — a fact the film knows full well, layering on a meta layer of satirical commentary about women in films.
What is so great about The Art of Self-Defense is that it tackles such serious issues in a way that makes them incredibly easy to understand. By taking everything to the nth degree and then delivering the story in flat, obvious dialog the movie shows how ludicrous many of our societal standards are. I’m being explicity vague about how the film plays out, which is restricting some of the commentary I can make on it, but that’s because watching unfold the way it does is part of the way the movie takes down our culture’s ideas of American manliness. Its steady ramp-up is the obvious conclusion to a world where toxic masculinity is taking to the extreme and that is both hilarious and scary.