In black comedy “The Art of Self-Defense,” Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a socially awkward accountant whose main contact is with his Dachshund. On a dog-food run, he’s brutally attacked and nearly killed by a gang of motorcyclists.
During his wait period to buy a gun, Casey visits a dojo, where he finds security in Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who describes getting groceries and going to the movies with freedom.
Sounds rough (it is), but writer/director Riley Stearns dresses his second feature film in enough satire that it kinda tempers the storm. To start, it’s guns, guns, guns on TV, and dry, passive-aggressive lashings from Casey’s answering machine. It's humorous and blatant and more to come.
Casey looks for examples of how to be in media, and Stearns points to moments of connection as being the game-changer.
At the dojo, black belt Kennith (Phillip Andre Botello) teaches Casey how to take a kick to the chest. After knocking him down, he says to think of it as “you striking my foot with your body.” Casey withstands a lighter strike, his waning confidence through trauma is visible.
Eisenberg is perfect as Casey. He's fidgety, monotone and explosively emotional when need be. And having played Mark Zuckerberg and Lex Luthor, he has a proven track record of sharp wit, deep defiance and a steel constitution.
Here, there’s charm and discomfort as he practices manliness listening to hard metal and shifts to a bare-breasted screensaver on his work computer. “I don't talk, I act,” he grunts, “Let’s do pushups.”
British actress Imogen Poots (“Green Room”) plays brown belt instructor Anna. Poots has a natural elegance and femininity that slices through this character’s hard-fought roughness. In a film that’s mostly male aggression, this attribute, mixed with Poots’ expertly executed expressions, are a fleeting comfort.
Alessandro Nivola is on-screen energy as Sensei, and Stearns paints him that way.
After mostly stagnant shots of Casey, the camera catches Nivola from several angles, quick cuts of feet and hands adjusting in fluid movements. And Nivola ("American Hustle") well rides the line of comedic execution and charisma.
Stearns’ followup to 2014’s “Faults” lays on thick toxic masculinity, gun violence and gender roles that undermine. “Her being a woman will prevent her from every becoming a man," a character says.
The absurdity increases along with major violence. And the mix didn’t balance out for this reviewer, who at one point slapped her thigh with her notebook and swore over some rough roughing up on screen. For the faint of heart, heed that warning.
During a late Saturday night viewing, the crowd's laughter and some words afterward helped soothe the grittiness — another perk of watching stuff with strangers and loved ones.
“The Art of Self-Defense” is pertinent, marking where we're at in this moment. It's worthy for what it stands for, but it's a rough go.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Director: Riley Stearns
Writer: Riley Stearns
Rating: R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Now showing: Zinema 2