‘The Art of Self-Defense’ needs more offense

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Concocting a black comedy is a complicated task to accomplish. Many of the best explore taboo and serious topics in a digestible manner for audiences by revaluing them into frivolous matters and mitigating the social weight they hold. “The Art of Self-Defense” undertakes this arduous challenge. 

In the film, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is teased for having a feminine-sounding name and essentially living out the stereotype of a wimp. Poking fun at the cultural norm of what a man isn’t, Casey lives alone with a dachshund as a companion. He is submissive to his boss and intimidated easily, and is beaten to a pulp by a couple of motorists. This event causes him to aspire to become a “real” man, and so he begins his education at a karate dojo.

Most of the film’s witticisms hit their mark by amplifying the idea of toxic masculinity. When Casey says he listens to “adult contemporary” music, his sensei responds with a blunt “No.” In this scene, Casey finds a new hobby in heavy metal music when Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) urges him to live by the belief that everything in a man’s life must be as masculine as possible. 

This foundation for jokes is patterned all over the film, venturing as well into femininity through Anna (Imogen Poots), a teacher at the dojo. Deliberately the sole female character, she acts as a stepping stone to exploring the concept of a woman pressured to assimilate into a world where men have all the power and condemned, as Sensei judges, for being “too much of a woman to be a man.”

Sensei purportedly symbolizes a traditional definition of masculinity. As he sharpens Casey into manhood, Casey transforms into a nightmarish epitome of that goal. He punches his boss in the throat to prove himself to his co-workers and continues a violent spree until Sensei forces him to kill someone. Tumultuous instances like these are mostly unsurprising and predictable, but their capacity for comedy is what gives the audience jitters.

The film’s personality is fleshed out more through the intervening of Eisenberg, playing his customary role as a tepid and sheepishly uncomfortable man. The actor skillfully exploits pauses to activate the dialogue in a tone that captures a joke and lets the audience awkwardly absorb it with a foolish chuckle. Director Riley Stearns also rhythmically supplements his performance by creating incredibly relaxed scenes with miniscule visual action, heightening the body language and line delivery of every moment.

“The Art of Self-Defense” succeeds in that respect, but the film fails when approached as a black comedy because of how little amusement it garners from its vulgar, gory scenes. Stearns’ slow-paced style comes off as dragging, especially when the darker moments feel in need of momentum or a change in direction. There is an imbalance of moods that holds comedic authority in the brighter, more ridiculous segments, yet the movie loses its grasp when latched onto the macabre elements of the film’s development.

In a tonal perspective, the film attempts to mutate into an uglier and more vicious self as it goes on: It begins with lighthearted instrumentals characterizing Casey’s posture in life and steadily bleeds out into the brutality of Sensei. It’s a crafty strategy that would be beneficial in achieving a morbid yet humorous vibe if it weren’t for the repetitive framework of scenes generating a monotonous quality. 

“The Art of Self-Defense” is intelligent in how Stearns’ script maneuvers through its underlying implications about masculinity within the milieu of karate. But the film struggles to extrapolate its notions on the topic from either the ordinary realism of Casey’s life or the absurdity of Sensei’s killer dojo.

Contact Cameron Opartkiettikul at [email protected].