The Karate Kid meets Fight Club meets Napoleon Dynamite, as Jesse Eisenberg encounters toxic masculinity, misogyny and gun control in a suburban dojo.
The Art of Self-Defense starts with a cracker of an opening scene – Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) sits passively in a diner, reading a newspaper, while French tourists mock him in their native tongue from a nearby table. The punchline? Cut to the next scene, and we discover Casey is a devoted Francophile currently learning French.
It’s a perfect articulation of both Casey’s character and the film’s main tension point. We never know for certain if Casey understands the jeering tourists and passively refuses to defend himself out of cowardice, or whether, despite his deep admiration of the language, his grasp of French is so lacking that he’s totally oblivious to the context.
The Art of Self-Defense is an extremely clever film from sophomore director Riley Stearns, delivering a topical snapshot of today’s gender politics and identity issues in a truly hilarious manner. The film slyly addresses a myriad of topics, including male/female stereotypes, gun control, and even #metoo.
Eisenberg is in his element as the wimpy Casey, an introverted accountant whose friendship group solely consists of his pet dachshund. Casey’s mundane life is upended following a violent mugging that leaves him hospitalised and traumatised – until salvation comes in the form of a local karate dojo, run by the charismatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Under Sensei’s mentorship, Casey awkwardly transforms himself into a stereotypical ‘alpha’ male, ultimately resulting in an invitation to join the dojo’s mysterious night class alongside the school’s only female student, Anna (Imogen Poots). Here, Sensei instils his students with a casually-violent ethos that essentially combines the doctrines of Fight Club and Martyrs.
Each touchpoint of the film works together to subtly mock outmoded forms of gender stereotyping; from the script (where Sensei pointedly states that Casey is a “girl’s name”) to the set design (the dojo’s interiors seem firmly grounded in an ‘80s heyday, making it endearingly out-of-date in the modern day).
The cast is simply brilliant. Eisenberg, who’s made a career of playing a range of nerd-centric characters, seems to have a lot of fun in a role that almost gives a comic twist to his previous portrayal of super-nerd Mark Zuckerberg.
The Art of Self-Defense is screening as part of Melbourne International Film Festival.