When meek Casey gets mugged, he approaches the aftermath in a practical way: He goes to buy a gun. But he gets slightly sidetracked and signs up for karate classes instead. The decision changes his life in ways he could never anticipate — and not all for the better.
This is THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE, a very funny story about self-realization, with a dark edge. It’s a martial arts story from a filmmaker who has spent a lot of time in the dojo. Here’s why this tale is a perfect comedy for 2019, especially for audiences that are looking for something with a kick.
Ever since he first broke out in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, Jesse Eisenberg has perfected the art of playing guys who are trapped in their own neuroses. Even in serious films like THE SOCIAL NETWORK or in huge tentpoles like BATMAN V SUPERMAN, Eisenberg has the unique ability to make you feel like your nerves are a little bit jangled.
As Casey, Eisenberg gets to revel in that nervous energy, with no restraint. He makes the early stage of Casey’s character funny and sympathetic, as it seems like no one respects him in the slightest. As his self-confidence grows and Casey becomes accustomed to his new martial arts life, Eisenberg gets to take the character in directions that would have no place in most other movies — and because he can find the vein of humor in any situation, his development is consistently funny.
The Sensei of Comedy
Part of the comic punch in THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE comes from Alessandro Nivola’s performance as Sensei, the somewhat mysterious teacher who gives Casey his lessons. This guy takes his practical sensibility as a teacher to odd and surprising extremes. We see this in the first teaser trailer, when he stonewalls Casey’s stammering answers to basic questions. In class, he offers absurd lessons, such as “punch with your foot, kick with your fist.”
Sensei may not be the right guy to help Casey become a new man, but he’s the one Casey finds. This instructor is maybe a little bit too dedicated to the idea of tough-guy masculinity — when watching FIGHT CLUB, he’d be the one rooting for the priest to beat everyone up. His intensity is so much, it boils over into comedy.
A Director With Bite
Director Riley Stearns has been flexing his unique sense of humor since even before he was making features. His attention-getting short film THE CUB (embedded above) featured a wickedly deadpan sense of humor wrapped around a bizarre concept. Two parents send their daughter off to be raised by wolves, “in order to give her the best chance of success in life.” The result is perhaps predictable — and, thanks to a great use of subtitles, blackly funny.
The first feature by Stearns, FAULTS, developed that sense of humor while adding themes of control and manipulation. Now, he puts a lot of his own personal interests — starting with martial arts — into his new movie. When Sensei says, “From now on, you listen to metal. It’s the toughest music there is,” as a way to insist that Casey become “as masculine as possible,” Stearns is writing from the perspective of a metal fan. That’s what gives THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE some of its punch: Its humor comes from someone who has observed versions of these characters in real life and knows just how to make them big enough for the silver screen.
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE in select theatres July 12, everywhere July 19.