By Richard Ades
Minutes into The Art of Self-Defense, a vicious mugging sends 35-year-old Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) to a gun shop in search of protection. Ultimately, though, he ends up in a karate studio, where he becomes a devotee of a secretive instructor known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).
It’s a decision that at first transforms and later endangers his life.
Though Casey’s goal is to learn how to defend himself, it turns out that Sensei teaches more than kicks and punches. He’s determined to turn Casey into a man—his definition of a man, that is, which includes the most extreme attributes of machismo.
And maybe that’s what Casey wants, too. “Other men intimidate me,” he tells Sensei, admitting what we’ve already witnessed in his interactions with assorted obnoxious males. So when Sensei eventually invites him to join the dojo’s exclusive “night class,” promising that it will help him become what he fears, Casey jumps at the chance.
Sure enough, he soon becomes someone who instills terror in others, but in the process he starts down a dangerous path that has no easy exit.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns (2014’s Faults), The Art of Self-Defense could just as easily be called The Pitfalls of Toxic Masculinity. Its true subject is that much-derided syndrome, which has been blamed for offenses ranging from sexual harassment to mass shootings and has been attributed to male entitlement, among other causes.
Here, Stearns doesn’t delve deeply into the disorder’s whys, other than having one of Casey’s fellow students suggest that men’s aggression is caused by testosterone. Instead, the flick concentrates on depicting machismo in its most absurd and destructive form.
In his quest to help Casey man up, Sensei tells him to start listening to heavy metal music and to give up his plans to visit France, a country best known for raising the white flag. In its place, he recommends idolizing more “masculine” lands such as Russia or Germany and is pleased to learn that Casey’s dog is German, even though it’s only a lowly dachshund.
As for women, Sensei’s male-centric worldview reduces them to second-class citizens since, after all, they’re not men. Accordingly, he continually downgrades the only woman in the dojo, Anna (Imogen Poots), despite the fact that she’s one of his fiercest and most skilled followers. And Anna herself seems to accept his judgment to some extent, even while she chafes at being denied the black belt she clearly deserves.
The Art of Self-Defense is being promoted as both a dark comedy and a drama. Of the two, it’s probably closer to the former, as long as you realize it’s more “dark” than “comedy.”
Nivola’s deadpan portrayal of the militantly manly Sensei may garner a chuckle or two, but the film’s spiral into danger and violence stops it from turning into a laugh fest. As for the dramatic elements, they’re undercut by Casey’s unrealistic transformation from a fearful milquetoast to an unprovoked throat-puncher, as well as by certain developments that are more predictable than they should be.
It’s probably most interesting to see Stearns’s flick as a comment on toxic masculinity, though Anna’s presence complicates the subject. After all, for the most part she is just as aggressive and dangerous as the men around her. It’s not until the final act that we learn there is one step on Sensei’s perverse journey that she refuses to take.
In the film’s dire view of humanity, that represents a slim hope for salvation.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
The Art of Self-Defense (rated R) opened July 18 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center, AMC Lennox Town Center 24 and AMC Dine-In Easton Town Center 30.