Black comedies with an additive of social commentary are a special breed. When a film can elicit laughter with a recognition of the societal mores in need of change in equal measure therein lies a recipe for success. But it all depends on the final execution. “The Art of Self-Defense” is just such a movie. Taking direct aim at toxic masculinity, this is a very earnest and specific bit of cinema, yet one that absolutely quashes expectations. Not only does the film have a lot to say, it parses its analysis in an incredibly unique manner. Blisteringly funny and pitch black in its critique, this is one of the best works of 2019 so far, bar none. From start to finish, it’s entirely riveting.
Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is nobody’s idea of an alpha male. In fact, he’s someone you’d see in the dictionary next to the term beta male. The opening sequence shows him getting coffee while a French couple mocks him in their native tongue. However, Casey is learning French, as the next scene makes clear, meaning the man sat there and took it. At work, he’s ignored. At home, he sits quietly and timidly with his dachshund. One night, while out to get his dog some food, he’s beaten and mugged by a group of individuals on motorcycles. Terrified and unable to go to work, Casey tries to buy a gun. Then, he passes by a dojo. Curious, he walks in and meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a karate master who sees a very unique potential pupil in Casey.
In short order, a student/teacher relationship emerges, though a very unconventional one. Fully entrenched in Sensei’s teachings, Casey begins to change in fundamental ways. He becomes aggressive, winning over some, while generating concern within Anna (Imogen Poots), the lone female student at the dojo. As he evolves, so too does Sensei, including involving Casey in the workings of the gym, as well as what he does with some students at “night class.” Then, things get weird.
Toxic masculinity abounds in modern culture, so it’s prime material for a satirical take examination through cinema. The trick is to make sure that the satire and takedown of the attitude is understood. Too light in the ribbing and the message won’t get across. Too heavy and it becomes an oppressive experience. Luckily, writer/director Riley Stearns finds the sweet spot here, crafting something equally entertaining and pointed in its criticisms.
“The Art of Self-Defense” is the best skewering of masculinity since “Fight Club.” The depiction here of how absurd extreme behavior is truly resonates. Filmmaker Stearns channels a bit of Yorgos Lanthimos in how his characters act and speak, giving things an extra layer of absurdity.
Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast here. He gives “The Art of Self-Defense” someone who can display internal rage in a compelling way. His long developed on screen persona helps to fuel the initial timidness of the character, which makes his evolution all the more startling. Mixed with the deliberate dialogue he’s given, this is an identifiable Eisenberg doing something unrecognizable. Eisenberg’s work here stands tall with his career defining performance in “The Social Network.”
Alessandro Nivola is at his best, getting a juicy role to sink his teeth into. Nivola is where the film generates both the most amount of humor as well as where its menace comes from. To call Nivola’s Sensei a villain is a gross simplification, but he becomes equal parts mentor and antagonist to Eisenberg’s Casey. The character actor is rarely offered opportunities like this, so it’s a pleasure to witness a project recognize and then utilize his talents. As for Imogen Poots, she’s essential to the plot, though the character the audience learns the least about. She’s an imposing figure and aces the dialogue, so it’s simply one of the few shortcomings of the script. Supporting players include Steve Terada, David Zellner, and more.
Writer/director Riley Stearns ups his game with this sophomore feature. “Faults” was an impressive debut, but this goes above and beyond. He finds a way to depict the dangers of toxic masculinity in a wholly unique way. This sort of concept has not been attempted since the aforementioned David Fincher classic. Stearns’ direction and screenplay are precise and specific, unafraid to hold the audience at a distance initially. However, before long, the storytelling is so effective that one can’t help but be sucked in. Stearns takes his Lanthimos styled writing, an unobtrusive score from Heather McIntosh, simple yet menacing cinematography by Michael Ragen, and commands it all with ample confidence. In fact, he builds it all towards an unexpected conclusion, one that features a riotous joke that’s as dark as it is hilarious.
In lesser hands, the very specific humor within “The Art of Self-Defense” would have wound up off-putting. Luckily, Stearns is more than up to the task, proving he’s an up and coming filmmaker to watch out for. This not only should remind audiences that Eisenberg is a powerful talent, it should help get Nivola more of the attention he deserves. Everything here works, coming together in a way no one will see coming. Simply put, this film is one of 2019’s best yet.