The Art of Self-Defense follows Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) on his journey of self-discovery fuelled by an unfortunate near death experience after being mugged one night coming back from buying dog food at the store. Casey, already a timid and introverted character, retreats further into his shell after this incident, becoming terrified of the world around him, particularly men. After running through a few options, Casey finds himself at a karate dojo mesmerized at the strength and confidence these people hold. And that is where our story truly starts.
At the centre of this dojo we have Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) ready to teach you how to kick with your firsts and punch with your feet. Sensei is the epitome of tragic toxic masculinity, enforcing ideologies of what masculinity is (in his case, teaching Casey that he must now exclusively love heavy metal and love all things German) and imposes a narrative of victim blaming in his dojo.
Next, we have Anna (Imogen Poots), the lone female student at the dojo who is constantly trying to prove herself to this group of men who are constantly undermining her for being a woman. My favourite line that Anna has is in response to Casey asking about the women’s changing room at the dojo. Casey asks, “So this is the women’s changing room?” And Anna replies, “Yes. It’s the same as the men’s only its smaller and not as nice.” A perfectly passive aggressive response to the inequality the dojo (and the world as a whole) has when it comes to women. Here’s to Anna breaking down the patriarchy with one foot punch at a time.
Then there is Henry (David Zellner), arguable the least violent and least filled karate junkie in the dojo. Although a minor character, Harvey is definitely an essential break from the testosterone filled dojo.
I can clearly see what they were trying to do here with The Art of Self-Defense. Writer and director Riley Stearns was trying to use this dark satirical comedy to critique the ever working entity of toxic masculinity. You find yourself scoffing at the uber-masculine alpha males in the film, maybe even comparing them to people you see in your everyday life as Casey’s coworkers sit around the break room table reading “manly” magazines with article titles like “The Wolf: A Man’s Pet” and discussing “manly” things, like sex, of course. This method of delivery was good….until it wasn’t. Soon enough, the presentation of these personalities became too much and quite simply, annoying instead of entertaining. There is a clear point in the film where I felt it shifted from funny to ridiculous.
Speaking of ridiculous, The Art of Self-Defense felt very gimmicky to me. At a certain point in the film, it switches from its slow pace focused on an everyday mundane life to an absurd amount of twists, one after another. Admittedly, the main plot twist in this film was done well. It gives you that initial shock and confusion where you are trying to make sure that is in fact what is happening. However, they should have just left it at that. Instead, the film puts back on its satire hat and characterizes the next half hour of the film, stuffing in every possible gimmick it can while still making some type of sense. The twists are thrown in haphazardly in an attempt to make an otherwise unfunny and unenjoyable film entertaining. Because the initial reaction is in fact surprise, but then you come realize its gimmicky and thrown in there without purpose.
Overall, The Art of Self-Defense had the potential to be a good movie poking fun at the hyper-masculine alpha males of the world but it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. However, I can definitely see this having the possibility to develop a cult following, similar to that of The Room. The “its-so-bad-its-good” type of movie.