Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) has recently dodged being typecast as timid characters, but he leans back into those traits to headline The Art of Self-Defense.
Eisenberg plays Casey Davies, a nebbish bachelor who has his life shaken up after he’s violently mugged by an infamous gang of anonymous motorcyclists. Recovering from this traumatic run-in, Casey becomes curious about how to protect himself. A nearby karate dojo piques his interest, as does the intense Sensei (Disobedience’s Alessandro Nivola). Soon (and suspiciously) enough, Casey becomes a streamlined member who becomes an integral key to the dojo, its way of life, and the daily sessions which also include secretive night classes.
Comparisons to 2008’s The Foot Fist Way are inevitable. But in that comedy, director Jody Hill made fun of those who have lost themselves in martial arts. It’s a movie about who the fighter is, not why they fight. In The Art of Self-Defense, writer/director Riley Stearns spins that around with less of a sneer. Instead of mocking his characters, Stearns is much more interested in telling a story about the lies people tell themselves to convince them of growth. The comedy comes into play when Stearns dials up the absurdity to punctuate the lengths people are willing to strive towards to alter their own perceptions of identity and reality. For Casey, it’s learning how to be more masculine through social osmosis by being around tough guys in the dojo.
The narrative’s tonal jumps are drastic and the character growth is a bit of a stretch in places, but the jokes hit hard in this clever dark comedy.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie