Starring Jesse Eisenberg. Rated 14A
Forget toxic masculinity. The testosterone coursing through The Art of Self-Defense could be part plutonium. But is there anything funny about that? Well, if Chernobyl was a romcom, it would look something like this.
Key to the comedy is the presence of Jesse Eisenberg—see, you’re laughing already!—as Casey Davies, the proverbial 98-pound weakling tired of getting sand kicked in his face. A dweeby accountant at a whatever company, he’s already low man on the macho totem pole when he’s badly beaten by motorcycle thugs on a simple errand to get dog food for his (you guessed it) dachshund.
Vowing never to repeat that, Casey attempts to buy a gun, but gets distracted by an odd karate studio run by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who boasts an overweening sense of self-importance.
This meek fellow is surprised to find that he has some potential as a martial artist. Still, it will require a lot of lifestyle modification. “Everything should be as masculine as possible,” his new teacher insists, before telling Casey his new favourite music is metal, not adult contemporary.
Confusing the antihero’s journey is the presence of one woman at the dojo, the tough-minded Anna (Imogen Poots).
No matter what she does, her actions always seem a little too estrogenated for Sensei. But her approach to karate’s philosophical side is more in line with what Casey’s looking for, and this sets in motion his investigation into the group, and into what roles violence and gender play in modern life.
That may sound serious, but in his sophomore outing, writer-director Riley Stearns favours a stylized, drily artificial approach—as if space aliens were imitating human behaviour in order to fit in to a world they barely understand.
The story can be surprisingly brutal at times, but it’s also funny enough to knock you off your feet.