Casey Davies audits for a living, is “that guy” who is friends with the boss, and watches movies alone with his dog. One night, he is mugged by a motorcycle gang and severely beaten. Wanting to be able to protect himself, he joins a local karate studio where he quickly discovers a passion for the martial art…and the belts that come with it. Molded by the hardcore attitudes of the people at the studio, Casey discovers some of the dojo’s sinister secrets.
The Art of Self-Defense is a dark comedy to the fullest. The comedy is wry and sarcastic, stemming primarily from the characters being very blunt and literal while keeping a straight face; it is the monotone and grave seriousness with which the actors deliver their lines, no matter how shocking or silly, that will provide most of the laughs. Alessandro Nivola, who plays the sensei, does a great job at this. Jesse Eisenberg flourishes in a role designed for his type-cast, the beta male who evolves into a more intimidating presence. And while the film isn’t laugh out loud funny, it’s humor should be appreciated with a subtle grin, a chuckle on the inside. But, what exactly is the substance to which we are laughing at?
To paint a larger picture, The Art of Self-Defense is a clear satire of toxic masculinity…dun dun duuun! Between the blatant sexism displayed towards the studio’s one female student, and the focus on being as masculine as possible to improve oneself, the film takes the concept of too much testosterone to hyperbolic levels. And while I would normally criticize a film for being so on the nose and obvious with its message, I think in this case it works, as it is consistent with the blunt characteristic of the comedy. However, this doesn’t mean the film is effective at getting across its message, it just means I wasn’t annoyed by it.
As the film calmly grows darker and darker with its story, and its message becomes more apparent, the criticism directed towards morbid fascinations of masculinity never lands its footing. This film feels a couple years too late and lacks bite. Guys who could actually learn something from The Art of Self-Defense, are unlikely to watch the film and are more than likely too stubborn to take criticism from “Hollywood” anyway. You could argue that the film exposes toxic masculinity for its harmful effect on those around it, as multiple innocents, which all happened to be men, are kicked and punched in the pursuit of pure manhood, a clever trick by writer/director Riley Stearns. However, the broad attack against toxic masculinity is too wrapped up in absurdism and left in the dark by its plot, for this film to ever be taken seriously as a social commentary.
Does The Art of Self-Defense succeed in being an offbeat, deadpan comedy? Yes. And I would recommend the film to anyone seeking something original and dark, but I could’ve been hit harder. 7/10