A man is attacked at random on the street. He enlists at a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious sensei, in an effort to learn how to defend himself.
Director: Riley Stearns
Writer: Riley Stearns
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration Available
Idiosyncrasy is defined as a characteristic, habit, or mannerism that is singular to the person discussed. In movie-making terms, it generally means that a particular movie could have only come from that director’s mind. Charlie Kaufman’s unique outlook on the world shines through in every script he writes. A Christopher Guest movie, with its equal parts heart and mockery, could only work under his watchful eye. With his second feature-length film, The Art Of Self Defense, writer-director Riley Stearns has crafted a beautifully distinctive comedic thriller.
Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is an office accountant whose co-workers barely notice he exists. One night, while walking home after buying more dog food for his beloved dachshund, Casey is beaten to near death by a vicious motorcycle gang. The traumatic event leaves him feeling weak and insecure, well, even more so than usual. He can’t leave his house, missing weeks worth of work.
Finally starting to overcome his understandable anxieties, Casey goes out one day. As he’s walking by a karate dojo, he becomes intrigued. Casey enters and watches as Anna (Imogen Poots) instructs the children’s class. He decides then and there to start taking karate classes. The dojo’s Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) sees a bit of himself in the young man.
After a handful of classes, Casey feels more confident in himself and even returns to work. As Casey becomes more entrenched into the martial arts world, Sensei agrees to help him track down those responsible. However, facts about his attack come to light that threatens to tear Casey’s new world apart.
The first brilliant element of The Art Of Self Defense that you’ll notice is its setting. The film could take place in 1984, 2003, nowadays, or 20 years in the future. Stearns, along with production designer Charlotte Royer, set designer Emily Blevins, and the fantastic art department have created a recognizable world yet one that is unlike any other. At the office, Casey works in one of the employees has a “macho man magazine.” It not only has nudes of women but also articles about gun ownership and ways to be a man. This hypermasculine set decoration is a microcosm of the movie’s themes against toxic masculinity and how internalizing that kind of thought process is poisonous.
All that makes the movie sound as if it is a gritty drama; though nothing could be further from the truth. The film may deal with serious issues, but it is an outright comedy through and through. After attaining his yellow belt and buying whole-hog the charm of Sensei, Casey special orders belts to match each color belt. There’s white, yellow, cyan, magenta, brown, and black. Yes, Casey got all the colors, including the ones that are readily available at any store that sells clothes. He gifts these belts to all the students at the dojo and Sensei. They all wear them in their lives outside the dojo with pride. It is as hilarious as it sounds.
The dialogue is heightened in a verbose, yet amusing way. Everyone speaks in a matter of fact way, even Sensei when he’s espousing how “karate is a language.” At a certain point, Anna tells her classmates that women are more sensitive to higher pitches of sound than men with all the enthusiasm of reading the ingredients on a cereal box. This tonal commitment not only allows the audience to understand a character’s motivation as soon as they are introduced, but it also serves as a merging of the dry wit of the lines and the immaculate set design. Every night when Casey returns home, he hits play on his landline answering machine, and it intones that he has no messages and that no one loves him.
As The Art Of Self Defense goes on, and the more propaganda from Sensei Casey buys into, he acts out in ways that are unusual for him. Casey’s boss comes by his desk to see how he’s doing, and Casey punches him in the throat. That Eisenberg makes both facets of his character believable and empathetic proves how often his understated approach can be taken for granted. Alessandro Nivola plays sensei, and he owns every ridiculous moment. From the stoic way, he delivers his lines to small gestures such as bowing to a picture of the dojo’s deceased, everything he does is hysterical.
The Art Of Self Defense is set in a very peculiar world populated by eccentric characters. While that might turn some off, due to the vision of director Riley Stearns and his incredible production team, as well as a top-notch cast, the movie is as hilarious as it is unpredictable. It emerges as a strong early contender for best film of the year.
– Bobby LePire, Film Threat