Courtesy of Bleecker Street
If “Office Space” and “Fight Club” had a child, it could look something like Jesse Eisenberg’s darkly comic “The Art of Self Defense” which works as a full-fledged compatriot to those titles. In the film, a timid Eisenberg (who continues to tackle roles that remain fresh and engaging) plays Casey, a pencil pushing dweeb seeking to reinvent himself after he is nearly beaten to death by a roaming biker gang.
Casey isn’t a “macho” dude, he owns a dachshund, is studying French, and is the basic equivalent of the office creep nobody wants to hang out with. Though he is good at his job overseeing audits within his company, it constantly puts a target on his back.
While recovering in the hospital from his injuries, something snaps inside the lonely cubicle workers head. He attempts to purchase a gun to protect himself, but those dang waiting periods prove rather futile, and he instead finds solace, and acceptance, in a local dojo. Inside he becomes captivated by the authority of the man known only as Sensei (a terrific Alessandro Nivola) and his unspooling philosophy of karate metaphors (“Karate is a language”) that could’ve been have lifted from any self help novel. But Casey is gullible enough to believe anything, and he enlists and becomes so engulfed in his studies, he skips work for months; eventually getting invited to the night class where things get considerably more hardcore.
Writer/director Riley Stearns depicts the world of martial arts in a half serious, half skewed type of lens. In particular to the Dojo’s comical set of rules (Rule #11 states that guns are weak) - and when Sensei becomes concerned about Casey’s technique in class, he instructs him to only listen to metal because “It’s the toughest music there is. Everything must be masculine.” In this world, everything is about ego and placement with no in between.
Eisenberg, in his teacher’s pet demeanor, will do just about anything to please his superiors, and the underlying subtext that Stearns peppers throughout - especially when it comes to the only female character, Anna (Imogen Poots who is fun to watch, yet isn’t given enough to chew on) - about toxic masculinity along with the constraints of emotional domination has a razor sharp tinge to it. With Eisenberg and Nivola feeling like the perfect fit both commercially and dramatically.
“The Art of Self Defense” can start to feel a bit repetitive towards the final stretch, and the filmmakers never exactly reveal the time-frame we’re living in (VHS camcorders, obtaining pornography from magazines, and literal cassette answering machines would lead me to believe we’re somewhere in the mid 90s’). And even though it’s hard to ignore how cruel, mean-spirited, and unbelievable some of the “teachings” are, the off-kilter vibe, tone, performances, and language make “Self-Defense” a genuine and satirical knee slapper.