A strangely pungent provocation on ‘toxic masculinity’ dangerously straddles the line between light quirkiness and psychological drama.
The Art of Self-Defense is directed by Riley Stearns and stars Jesse Eisenberg who embraces what can be irritating from a plotting and pacing standpoint working from his usual twitchy bundle of neuroses. He’s been in a couple of Woody Allen films (To Rome With Love, Café Society) but this role may share some similarity with a lesser known one, The Double, along with elements of the premise.
Eisenberg’s Casey Davies is a meek auditor who isn’t a good fit in a very virile milieu where he is abashed by colleagues and assumed by others on the phone as not a man. When there’s no more food for his doted dachshund a late run to the grocery store proves fateful, if finally enlightening.
While on hold for a firearm background check Casey ends up in a dojo studio, enlisting in karate instruction. A no-nonsense Sensei (Alessandro Nivola in a kind of devilish deadpan mode) will do much more for him than Nugenix as Stearns’s attempt to skewer the real world is clearly subverting the mainstream in the way the spectrum of the broad and understated co-exist. Casey will seize on opportunities presented, heeding to notions about owning a German Shepherd and listening to heavy metal recordings
The narrative pulsations and dialogue do have a singular quality about them, but the discordant nature, especially in the latter section, may be a little too much even for discerning cineastes to bear. Yet, Stearns gets plenty of mileage from Eisenberg and Nivola (well cast, too) when it comes to examining the dynamics initiated by an alpha. And, that extends to the distaff side where Anna (a somewhat short-changed Imogen Poots) is also a teacher and crackerjack learner but still woeful in the eyes of a master while remaining a brown belt.
Though it may not resonate like the filmmakers intended the excessiveness in the presentation of Self-Defense has a foreboding, if peculiar art to it. One that can pique much interest for certain periods as investment into character and levity can yield dividends before discouragement finally settles in.