The Art of Self-Defense
On paper, Riley Stearns’ quirky, sinister dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense hits all its marks. It’s a bleak yet at times delightfully silly twist on rom-com tropes, with some kung-fu shenanigans thrown in for color. While the end result doesn’t quite land its punch, there’s still enough fun in the execution to make the film worth your time.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey Davies, another of the actor’s trademark awkward, nebbishy nobodies whose milquetoast character has little to show for himself. When attacked by a motorcycle gang, Casey decides to engage in a little self-improvement by signing up for a local karate class.
There he meets his sensei (character actor Alessandro Nivola in a role perfect for his frame), an intense leader who takes everything as seriously as a kick to the chest. His sullen assistant Anna (Imogen Poots) works her way up to assist the classroom instruction, seemingly held back from blackbelt glory for reasons the audience is not yet privy to.
From this simple premise emerges a story that incorporates elements of action movies, heist thrillers, martial arts mayhem, and underdog-standing-up-for-himself shtick, shifting tone and impact throughout. As Casey gets closer to his teacher, darker elements are uncovered, resulting in acts of heroism and revenge that were never in the quiver of the formerly quivering number-cruncher.
Director Stearns has long had a taste for twisting together larger-than-life events with the humdrum and commonplace affairs of everyday life. His short The Cub was about a couple who sent their daughter off to be raised by wolves, while his first feature, Faults, explored a person deprogramming a woman who joined a cult. His latest writing/directing project continues to present this sense of the surreal and the simplistic colliding, which makes it very friendly to the audiences at festivals like South by Southwest, where The Art of Self-Defense premiered.
The film has perhaps a few too many twists to truly work. It feels a bit scattershot at times as reveal after reveal are uncovered, often with little surprise. The dance between having twists that engage the audience versus revelations long telegraphed is difficult to pull off, and the results here are mixed. The film’s ambitions don’t quite live up to all if its intent.
With amiable performances, a fun storyline, and enough oddness to captivate, The Art of Self-Defense may not live up to the haughty notion of its title’s second word, but it sufficiently provides an odd, engaging dive into a world where karate, motorcycles and spreadsheets all tally up to something pretty entertaining.