Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is assaulted on the street and grows fearful of his everyday life. To regain control of his courage, he enlists in a local martial arts dojo – only to find its sensei (Allesandro Nivola) governing more and more of his life.
The Art of Self-Defense is an absurd comedy written and directed by Riley Stearns. It is a film where you can see its creative intentions very clearly, and its end product not entirely far away from them. That it does not quite hit its target is unfortunate, but it does at least leave a watchable movie behind. The key problem is that the film interrogates and punctures violent masculism in American culture almost exactly 20 years after David Fincher’s Fight Club did, but fails to bring anything significant to the conversation. What is more, the past two decades of culture have in part left Fight Club somewhat redundant and out-of-date. It feels rather like finishing a conversation, moving on – and then having a stranger open the front door 10 minutes later before announcing ‘…and another thing,’ and trying to re-start the conversation.
There is plenty of comedy in the film that does still work. Moments of absurd violence. Casey’s ridiculous attempts to become more manly and aggressive, which range from switching up to heavy metal to punching his boss in the throat. As a minor independent comedy it is a regularly effective diversion, and I daresay a lot of viewers by finding a lot of enjoy. Yet it continues to struggle, with the obvious and rote casting of Jesse Eisenberg playing another geek-type (see Zombieland, The Social Network, Adventureland, et al) and delivering less dividends through over-familiarity. We have seen him play this kind of a role too many times, and it feels repetitive.
Elsewhere the cast feels much more interesting. Alessandro Nivola has spent his whole career doing impressive and understated work, mostly without sufficient critical notice. As the self-named “Sensei” he is marvellously unpredictable and abrupt, with a strong elements of self-mockery. As Casey’s classmate Anna – the only woman in the entire dojo – Imogen Poots creates a character that feels distinctive from her previous film work, and is almost certainly the most appealing character. Together Nivola and Poots add a lot of weight to the film that Eisenberg is, for whatever reason, not providing this time around.
What we have here is a fitfully entertaining indie comedy, and taken on that level it is entertaining enough to hit its target audience. It is visibly aiming higher, however, and what is offers at that higher level is a conversation about violence, ego, and men that simply does not have a great deal to say. It is enjoyable and disappointing at the same time. There is potentional that has been sadly wasted this time around.