In The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns’ new dark comedy, Jesse Eisenberg is cast in what can best be described as a quintessentially Eisenbergian role as Casey Davies, a 30-something guy so timid that he barely casts a shadow.
When he answers his telephone, the caller asks, “Is Ms. Davies in?” And at work, he is frightened away from the break room by his more masculine co-workers.
Returning to his drab apartment one evening where he lives with a tiny dachshund, he discovers he is out of dog food and goes out to buy some more. On the street he is violently mugged and beaten by a gang of bikers.
Casey decides that he’s had enough and applies for a permit to purchase a gun. But then he happens upon a karate studio. Mesmerized by the martial arts on display, he is also drawn in by the quiet strength of the leader, known only as the Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, underplaying hilariously).
When Casey signs up for class, he tells the Sensei, “I’m intimidated by other men. I want to become what intimidates me.”
He quickly rises through the ranks, attaining the status of yellow belt and being accepted into the school’s special “night classes,” which are exceedingly violent.
Another member of the school is Anna (Imogen Poots), who clearly has more skills that the others but is passed over by the Sensei for being a woman. Infuriated by her second-rate status, she nearly beats a fellow student to death, to the quiet approval of the Sensei.
Casey is at first shocked by the mayhem, but he becomes emboldened when he is accepted as a member of this hyper-macho community.
Soon he’s tough enough to stroll into the break room and send his co-workers fleeing. He also starts listening to heavy metal music and tells his dog, “I’m sorry. I can’t pet you anymore.”
To complement the film’s drab Anytown settings, Stearns has all of his characters deliver their dialogue in flat, awkwardly-structured tones, which makes it all the more hilarious.
Eventually, the scenario takes a darker turn and the laughs become fewer, but it’s a tribute to writer/director Stearns that the film doesn’t go off the rails. It remains a sharply biting satire of the role that masculinity plays in society.
The Art of Self-Defense was reviewed on Mar. 10 at SXSW at the Paramount Theater in Austin.