I like dark comedy and I like satire. The film, The Art of Self Defense is meant to incorporate both, an intriguing take on toxic masculinity. The film explores what happens when you become what you hate, attempting to do so in a comedic fashion. The movie does present it’s perspective in some interesting ways, with some humorous elements but the message is heavy-handed, the comedy mixed in its results and the film is predictable.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, The Art of Self Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg as milquetoast accountant Casey Davies, who after a brutal mugging, joins a karate dojo, convinced by the charismatic leader, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Casey becomes enraptured by the macho posturing of Sensei, who convinces Casey to eschew all the elements about himself that appear to make him weak. Conflict within the dojo, as Sensei belittles the female instructor, Anna (Imogen Poots), slowly chips away at Casey’s conviction, though, as he joins the night class and discovers the dark aspects of Sensei and the dojo.
It is clear that the film’s director has a vision for this movie, attempting to present a satire of toxic masculinity, to point out how disturbing and dangerous such mentality is to both those that embrace it and those targeted by it. It absolutely presents that in giving into hate you become the thing that you hate and fear. And while the comedic elements are mixed, there are moments when the film has humor that engages the audience.
Part of the vision is in the direction of the actors. It is obvious that Jesse Eisenberg embraces his character, presenting exactly what is asked of him, both the pale, weak character of Casey who is brutalized and also when he changes. He shows a wide range, giving a slightly awkward character. He is stiff at times but this seems to be deliberate, meant to convey the strangeness of his character and how he embraces the dojo. Imogen Poots is also talented, showing a character that is both violent but also downtrodden by the characters in the film, until the end of the movie. Alessandro Nivola as Sensei is direct in his macho posturing, homophobic and creepy but it is certain that it is the effect that he is meant to portray.
My reaction to this film is mixed. The message is clear but in its presentation, it is heavy-handed. There is no subtlety in the movie. It is attempting to be a satire but instead, it gives us a view of characters that are mostly stereotypes. Casey is the odd nerd, unable to fit in. The film almost seems to say this is why he is brutalized because he is weak. And while the macho posturing is meant to be seen as satirized, as something wrong, there are times when it actually seems to be lauded as strength. The end is predictable because the message is so profoundly heavy in what we are given and that ends up leaving me not as entertained, because I know every element as it happens.
The comedy aspects are mixed as I mentioned. While at times, there is laughter, it is based on awkward, uncomfortable humor as you laugh at the stiffness of Casey or his choices as he embraces the teachings of Sensei or laughing at the macho posturing of Sensei and his students. Some of the humor does work but more often it falls flat, actually ending up creepy and disturbing. The film is also graphic in the violence and yet not once, is there a character that points out that it is wrong or tries to end it. Casey completely joins in the violence, embracing what he hates and fears. This leaves the characters unengaging and unrelatable.
While there are flashes of vision in the film, it is not for me. The message is too obvious, the comedy too uncomfortable, the macho posturing too predictable, and the characters so stiff in their presentation leaving them unengaging and not
entertaining. The film also misses the line with its satire so much so that the disturbing behavior that is meant to be presented as toxic is almost seen as being glorified. It has the opposite effect of the intended message and just wasn’t a film for me.
Rating: 3 out of 5 dachshunds