Whether you’re looking at your Twitter feed, scrolling through an article, or even aimlessly walking by the TV as pundits discuss the day’s news, it’s difficult to escape the notion of toxic masculinity. The term “toxic masculinity” itself has become so ubiquitous that it has separated from its initial meaning; people commonly refer to it as some sort of buzz word to rile up some other group. Which brings us to The Art of Self-Defense, a pitch-black comedy that satirizes everything that the hyper-masculine man stands for by showing both their arrogant and morally irresponsible ways.
The film is one wild ride, so strap in, and prepare to become in tune with your feelings. As The Art of Self-Defense explains, it’s perfectly okay to do so.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Riley Stearns
Written By: Riley Stearns
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello, and David Zellner
Casey (Eisenberg) is a mild-mannered, timid bookkeeper who has little to get excited about. He struggles to connect with others (especially men), and does little outside of work to pursue his passions. And unfortunately for Casey, things get worse as a rogue crew of motorcyclists pummels him to within an inch of his life, leaving him as a terrified shut-in.
Seemingly without a direction, Casey joins a karate studio in town run by a man known only as Sensei (Nivola), who quickly begins to mold Casey in his own image while showing him the true power of manliness.
A (Very) Brief History of Jesse Eisenberg Playing a Neurotic Outsider
Eisenberg has been relatively quiet since Batman V Superman back in 2016, and for good reason. I know I would want to distance myself as much as possible from that troubled mess. However, for better or worse, Zack Snyder’s film epitomized what Eisenberg has done throughout most of his career: play the part of a neurotic individual that struggles to connect with others. Whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg or even Walt Berkman in The Squid and the Whale, Eisenberg always looks like he feels uncomfortable. The only difference in BvS was that he had very little material with which to work — and his iteration of Lex Luthor was ill-conceived from the start, but that’s a conversation for another day.
The star has mentioned many times before that he refuses to watch his own movies, adding another layer to the mental gymnastics that his characters undergo.
The Art of Self-Defense allows for Eisenberg to once again express his anxieties in a motor-mouthed fashion. Even though he consistently plays characters cut from the same cloth, I’ve always appreciated how he makes each of them distinct. You’ll find that his character is far more troubled and unknowingly hilarious this time around.
Alessandro Nivola is Outrageously Great as Sensei
I’ll say it right now: Alessandro Nivola’s performance as Sensei is my favorite male performance of the year so far. The best way to describe his character is someone who carries himself with the utmost grace and confidence, but everything he says is complete and utter bullshit — just like all men who suffer from toxic masculinity!
Unlike many similar films, The Art of Self-Defense never winks at the camera, never alerting the audience that it is aware of its own dark humor. All the characters take in Sensei’s teachings like its scripture. In his iconic line, Sensei tells his students that he’s going to teach them to how “kick with their fists and punch with their feet.” Sensei delivers the line with such self-confidence that the only reasonable reaction for his students is to nod like it makes perfect sense. Nivola as Sensei is a perfect embodied of the man who perceives his own image as flawless. He never has to raise his voice, mostly because he has created his own ecosystem with the level of power that he has. He is always respected and revered; he’s always in the right, no matter what.
And that’s precisely what makes him such a menacing figure when he’s not being unintentionally funny. In his dojo, he’s all-knowing and all-powerful. You can’t stand up against him, or else you’ll suffer. Greatly.
The Art of Self-Defense‘s Screenplay is Outstandingly Sharp
I see The Art of Self-Defense as an ideal melding of writing and acting. Eisenberg is note-perfect, utilizing his on-screen persona to elevate Riley Stearns’ incredibly tight material. Nivola is his perfect opposite. (You should be sensing a pattern with my use of “perfect” in this piece by now.) Supporting members of the cast such as Imogen Poots also fill in quite nicely to this thrilling film.
Riley Stearns is shifting perspective consistently in The Art of Self-Defense. Not in terms of getting inside the head of different characters at different times, however, but by using the same motif or speech pattern to explain new developments within the plot and within the themes themselves. You may howl at lines such as “the fact that she’s a woman kept her from being a man” for their ingenuity, simplicity, and delivery. You’ll also stop to ponder a line that was repeated for effect at different points in the film. It’s truly a rewarding experience.
Toxic Masculinity Be Damned!
For all the laughter caused by absurd lines of dialogue that are expressed without a single ounce of cynicism, there are many moments that created the opposite response. “Oh. Well, shit” was a common response that I uttered as the joy left my body and was replaced with utter horror for the gross hierarchy of gender-specific behavior that permeates both The Art of Self-Defense and our everyday lives.
The Art of Self-Defense is rarely subtle in terms of driving its point home, which I imagine may be a point of contention for many filmgoers. Though the inner workings of its plot call for such an approach as a master is literally lecturing to his students, teaching his methods through the allure of obtaining one’s idealized self. It just so happens that those methods also reflect some of our most ugly habits as human beings and threaten to destroy civilized society.
There’s a wish-fulfillment side to toxic masculinity that The Art of Self-Defense captures so poignantly. It comes from the ultimate power fantasy of striking fear in another and knowing that the other person knows you’re the dominant at all times. When left unchecked as it is in The Art of Self-Defense, the alpha has free rein to do whatever he pleases. There is no balance, no compromise.
The Art of Self-Defense is the kind of movie that 2019 needs, one that is full of irreverent, dark comedy that sends up the worst impulses of about half of our species. It’s not something that’s entirely new to film — Riley Stearns owes a lot to Fight Club and other films like it — but it’s entirely of its own style and personality.
Alessandro Nivola and Jesse Eisenberg are absolutely magnetic as the two leads. Seriously, I don’t think I will ever get enough of Nivola’s unnervingly deadpan delivery in contrast to Eisenberg’s neurotic energy; they are perfect foils to each other in every single way.
If you’re a fan of a tight screenplay, great performances, and strong thematic depth, The Art of Self-Defense is for you. Otherwise, well, I guess you can just wait for Cats, coming December 2019.
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