With Jesse Eisenberg as the high-voiced “femine name” hero-dweeb, and Alessandro Nivola as his scary foil and karate “sensei” (teacher/master), “The Art of Self-Defense” is the very picture of “on the nose casting.”
So writer-director Riley Stearns, of the little-seen “Faults,” makes it his mission to have that be the only thing that’s predictable in this quirky, violent satire of “toxic masculinity” and revenge in a culture where the affronts to one’s manhood lie around every corner. And for the most part, he succeeds.
Eisenberg is Casey, mild-mannered accountant and loner in an unnamed city, for an unnamed firm where there’s no point to him trying to squeeze in to the “hate the boss” chatter among the guys in the coffee break room.
Like a lot of Eisenberg characters, there are traces of “on the spectrum” to his awkwardness. And meek? A blunt “get out” ends those conversation overtures. A sad look from his dachshund guilts him into a late night walk to fetch dog food.
That’s the walk that changes his life. He is accosted and savagely beaten by visored-helmet hoodlums on motorcycles, the sort of thing that happens mostly in the movies and not in, say, Louisville, the unnamed city where this is filmed.
Stearns uses indistinct license plates to mask that, and leaves most characters’ names out, or delays their revelation. We’re meant to focus on the satire, the droll send-up of aspects of masculinity, bullying, violence and gun ownership.
Because that is Casey’s first solution to his “I can’t go back out there” after dark, the fear and humiliation that accompanies the physical injuries.
A TV newscaster has warned people not to venture out “without a weapon,” thanks to these motorbike muggings. Casey takes that as his cue to visit that museum of fetishized manhood, his local gun shop, where the owner takes a sadistic liberal’s delight in citing statistics about suicide and accidental death risks, joking about the vastly heightened danger to having children in a house with guns, but “if you’re having kids, we sell child-safety locks that are reasonably effective.”
But it is the macho bellows and grunts emanating from a local dojo that lure Casey in. A woman (Imogen Poots) is teaching small children in fairly graphic terms the sorts of pain, injury and even death they can hope to achieve by mastering this move or that “choke hold,””closing the carotid artery, cutting off oxygen to the brain,” etc.
The “rules” of the dojo are on the wall. No shoes on the mat, and “Guns are for the weak.”
The sensei, played by that face of beady-eyed malevolence, Nivola (“American Hustle,” “A Most Violent Year”) is dry, blunt, obsessed with his version of honor and martial arts respect, and yet seductive. He seems to understand Casey more than he should, sizing him up, challenging him but also gently flattering him. Why is he here?
Forget the answers Casey gives most easily. There’s only one that counts.
“I want to become what intimidates me.”
For a guy teaching himself French, mastering “I want no trouble, sir. I am but a tourist” just in case, this is a giant step.
Dojo becomes not just therapy, but his obsession. And “The Art of Self-Defense” drags us down that rabbit hole with him. This is “The Social Network” with “use your foot as your fist, your fist as your foot” solving a smart, wimpy guy’s shortcomings.
We can guess what’s coming, though Stearns puts in admirable effort at twisting up expectations, or at least delaying them.
Stearns could be getting at the notion that it’s not a coincidence that America’s feminine obsession with “bullying” and ways to deal with it that don’t involve the age-old rule of “always confront, always fight back” that boys have had hard-wired into them by fathers, movies and TV, preceded by a couple of years the election of the most stereotypical bully ever to hold the presidency.
“The Art of Self-Defense” struggles, in a clumsy or at least problematic third act that takes us to its darkest corners, to have it both ways — a world where somebody else does the confronting before the way is cleared for a more enlightened and yes, feminine and peaceful future.
Perhaps that’s what Nancy Pelosi is waiting for.
Discounting that, Stearns has still made us laugh through the grimaces for much of “The Art of Self-Defense,” and if nothing else, has given anyone — “Karate Kid” parents or adults — a veritable checklist of the warning signs that maybe this dojo isn’t for you, signs that perhaps the sensei doesn’t use the word “teacher” because what he really wants aren’t classes, but a cult.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Credits: Written and directed by Riley Stearns. A Bleecker St. release.
Running time: 1:44