The Art of Self-Defense: A Dark Comedy

Jesse Eisenberg as Casey in Riley Stearns' THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE. Credit: Bleecker Stree

The Art of Self-Defense takes a dark comedic look at toxic masculinity but does so while grounding it in the world of karate.

Accountant Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is forced to sign up for karate classes after a he gets jumped by a motorcycle gang.  It’s only because there’s no more dog food.  Man’s best friend comes first, right?!?  Casey does the first logical thing he can think of when he leaves the hospital: buy a gun.  There’s a waiting period so this isn’t the solution he wants.  Next thing you know, Casey finds himself outside of a karate studio.  Naturally, curiosity gets the best of him.

It’s at the karate studio where he learns from Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) while befriending brown belt
Anna (Imogen Poots).  As days turn into weeks, it becomes clear that this isn’t the same Casey.  His confidence levels manage to skyrocket as a result.  Sensei eventually asks Casey to join the night classes.  The daytime classes are nothing compared to what takes place at night.  It’s a very different world altogether!

If you think you know what toxic masculinity represents, you might want to reconsider.  This film takes the whole idea to an entirely new level!  This is mostly represented by way of the nighttime class.  There is also Sensei.  It is really fun watching the entirely thing play out.  Sensei suggests that Casey listen to metal and adopt of German Shepherd.  Casey owns a pet dachsund and the dog doesn’t exactly scream masculinity.  It is Sensei’s belief that these are the most masculine things to do.  Honestly, the film completely subverts the idea in the film.  You go into the film expecting one thing.  Instead, we get something completely different in return.

I especially love how Alessandro Nivola plays the role.  What makes his monologue more impressive is that he has to make karate moves while doing so!  I love what he brings to the character here.  There’s a comical side to this serious instructor.  Most of the humor comes from deadpan delivery.  Not only for Sensei but Casey, too.  It’s an added touch to the dark comedy.

Being a Louisville native, I love that this film is shot in my hometown.  Don’t expect to take a tour of the karate studio anytime soon though.  The film shoot only delayed the demolition of the former machine shop.

The Art of Self-Defense is a film that pulls no punches.  I’m not joking around here either.  When it comes to the tone of The Art of Self-Defense, writer/director Riley Stearns is a genius.  There are so many things in this film that we do not even expect.  Sure enough, they do!  It’s a film that also holds up well on second viewing after my first screening during SXSW.

CAST:  Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, and Alessandro Nivola

Bleecker Street opens The Art of Self-Defense in theaters on July 12, 2019. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.