The Art of Self-Defense (2019)
Directed by Riley Stearns
Remember the Rex Kwon Do scene in “Napoleon Dynamite”? Imagine if those few minutes were stretched out for one hundred, until long after every last drop of sardonic humor had been squeezed out of it and the story had reached its logical (if very dark) conclusion. That’s how it feels to watch writer/director Riley Stearns’s “The Art of Self-Defense,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as Casey—an emasculated man with less genuine personality than a breakable wooden board. In the tradition of movies like “Fight Club” or “Wanted,” Casey will have to earn his manhood in traditionally masculine ways (in this case, karate classes and rude arrogance) to gain self-confidence. I still haven’t decided if “The Art of Self-Defense” knows that its message of machismo is toxic or not. One assumes that mocking this idea of hypermasculinity may even be the movie’s goal, but in the end, it doesn’t give comeuppance to all the right people.
“The Art of Self-Defense” wallows in the self-pity of its characters. As often as I laughed, I stopped myself from laughing because the movie was so hard on them. I felt sorry for them in ways that made the comedy feel obnoxious. Other times, the humor was so bone-dry it barely registered. In the end, it almost ended up being too silly for its own good. In the movie’s defense, Jesse Eisenberg manages to make the best out of a subpar situation. His performance toes the line between drama and satire in a masterful way. In a movie where seemingly everyone—from his coworkers to the voice on his answering machine—has contempt for his character, Eisenberg inexplicably gets us on his side.
“The Art of Self-Defense” takes as much patience as earning a black belt…in the end, the reward is much less fulfilling.