The Art of Self-Defense
The Art of Self-Defense is ultimately a good film, but also one of the more difficult cinematic works to recommend in some time.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, the dark comedy about a nebbish accountant named Casey (Jesse Eisenberg, natch) who takes up karate as a security boost after an extreme mugging/beating is well-made and full of awkwardly comedic moments.
The confident handling of numerous interior and exterior shots also marks a significant step forward for the filmmaker, whose previous feature Faults is practically the epitome of effective low-budget moviemaking with minimal locations.
Though that 2014 film was no slouch in the cast department, Stearns’ direction of actors has likewise improved. Casey may be a hyper-familiar character for Eisenberg, but the actor nonetheless gives another appealing performance and Casey’s malleable innocence meshes well with the unflinching seriousness of the dojo’s Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and its children’s instructor/lone adult woman student Anna (Imogen Poots).
The message their efforts aspire to deliver, however, is more than a bit muddled. From its opening minutes, The Art of Self-Defense presents compelling commentary on toxic masculinity, but as Casey’s journey grows increasingly violent, the film’s true purpose suddenly becomes obscured, and the eventual solution that’s presented is so extreme that it’s largely ineffectual and undoes much of the cast and crew’s hard work up to that point.
Further hampering these puzzling elements is a twist that’s easily predictable for viewers familiar with Stearns’ sensibilities, leaving only those with particularly offbeat tastes primed to appreciate the complete project.
Grade: B-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Bleecker Street)