Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Alessandro Nivola, Steve Terada
Director: Riley Stearns
The Art of Self-Defense is going to be one of the hardest reviews I write all year because it’s almost impossible to explain just how truly ridiculous this movie is. The thing is, I absolutely loved every second of it. When you take a concept like the balance between pacifism and toxic masculinity and wrap it between a series of over-the-top karate scenes and the funniest jokes of the year, you get a movie that some people may despise, but that will easily contend as one of my favorites of the year. A spectacular script that was taken advantage of by a talented cast makes The Art of Self-Defense one of the most unique and captivating movies of the year.
The film follows Casey Davies (Eisenberg), a meek, feeble accountant who is mugged one night on his way home from the grocery store. Not wanting to fear the world around him anymore, Casey signs up for karate classes where he meets his charismatic and masculine Sensei (Nivola) to show him how to get what he wants. Through very unconventional teaching methods, Sensei challenges Casey about his worldview and makes Casey question whether or not he wants to embrace this new version of himself. If I had to summarize The Art of Self-Defense in one sentence, the best way to describe it would be a funnier version of Fight Club. With Eisenberg taking on Edward Norton’s role and Nivola in Brad Pitt’s spot, The Art of Self-Defense updates Fight Club’s message to make it more relevant to the generation entering adulthood today. Much like Pitt’s performance, Nivola captivates the screen and really makes you reevaluate how we look at toxic masculinity from both a positive and negative light and adds an incredible comedic element that drives the point home. Does being a man mean you have to force your way onto everyone and everything in your way? Of course not. But what’s the alternative? If you never stand up for yourself you end up docile and unfulfilled like Casey before he discovers karate. Much like karate, our lives require a certain level of balance in order for us to find happiness and The Art of Self-Defense shows that through a twistedly funny lens. Regardless of the intent of the movie, make no mistake, this is a very dark movie. Whether this is the conflict, humor, or overall tone, this movie makes its intent very well known and pulls no punches offending anyone in its way. If you are sensitive and don’t like jokes that come at the expense of others, then you need to stay far away from The Art of Self-Defense. Fortunately, this is my favorite type of comedy and this movie easily made me laugh harder than any other movie this year. Through the unique combination of Eisenberg’s meekness and fragility with Nivola’s charisma and wicked charm, The Art of Self-Defense has emerged as one of Bleecker Street’s most ambitious projects in years and it provides nothing but pure awe and amazement for 104 minutes.
Overall, The Art of Self-Defense is not the movie I was expecting in the best ways possible. I know Nivola won’t get any award recognition in the awards circuit, but the way he captivates the audience in every one of his scenes makes me wish he would get a nomination somewhere down the line. Very rarely does a small-budget movie grasp me in such a way that The Art of Self-Defense did and if this is what Bleecker Street is starting off the second half of 2019 with, I can’t wait to see what they have come out in future months.
Overall Score: 10/10