It’s funny how the tenor of the times can change how art is both made and perceived. Had The Art of Self Defense, the new film by writer-director Riley Stearns, come out just a few years ago, one could imagine it as a light-hearted trifle of an indie comedy, or perhaps even an outrageous, Dodgeball-style bro-com. Its story, about a nebbishy office drone who falls under the sway of a pompous karate instructor, seems rife for big, dumb laughs. And, to be sure, The Art of Self Defense is very funny (and dumb, in a self-aware way). But it’s also a film made in the year 2019, a time when the absurd has become frighteningly real and satire is increasingly threatened with obsolescence. As a result, this wacky martial arts comedy has morphed into something much darker and stranger than meets the eye.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, a painfully awkward “beta male” (the film’s parlance, not mine) living a decidedly uninspiring existence as an accountant in a drab cubicle. He dreams of going to France and desperately seeks the approval of his macho officemates (who sit around the break room table matter-of-factly saying things like “Missionary is the best position” and “We should do push-ups”), but mostly only finds company in his unnamed dachshund. One night, while walking to the store for dog food, Casey is savagely beaten by a gang of masked motorcyclists. During his recuperation, Casey finds himself terrified to leave the house. He applies to buy a handgun, but worries that the waiting period would leave him vulnerable to future attacks (“It’s so someone who’s mad at someone else can’t just buy a gun and kill them,” the clerk deadpans, “Instead they have to wait a few days.”).
In desperation, Casey finds himself at a strip mall dojo, run by a sensei who refers to himself only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Intimidated by both the physicality of karate and Sensei’s pseudophilosophical proclamations (“You must learn to kick with your fists… and punch with your feet”), Casey sits on the sidelines, first during Sensei’s day class, then at the children’s class run by the blankly psychotic Anna (Imogen Poots). Eventually, Sensei invites him to join, telling Casey that he sees a lot of himself in him. Casey takes to the class, which finally allows him to feel like something of a man. However, Sensei soon takes an uncomfortably personal interest in Casey’s life, pushing him to listen to heavy metal, abandon French lessons for German, and strive to be more “masculine” (“You’re a good dog, and I care about you very much,” Casey informs his dachshund. “That said, I’m not going to pet you anymore. It’s for your own good.”). Gradually, what at first seemed like a harmless pastime reveals itself to be something altogether more sinister.
While never explicitly stated, technological signifiers seem to place The Art of Self Defense as a late-’90s period piece, all VHS and standalone answering machines and chunky CRT computer monitors. Even without these clues, however, its time period should be clear. Sensei’s teachings echo that peculiar strain of 1990s machismo exemplified by Steven Seagal or Chuck Norris, with quasi-intellectual posturing and secondhand mysticism serving as cover for a startlingly toxic masculinity. Sensei’s own interpretation of this he-man mentality is outrageously overblown (he at one point states that a massage from a woman is inherently inferior because “their hands are too weak and feminine”), but, again, given the landscape in which we find ourselves, it doesn’t feel as outrageous as it should. Stearns is aware of this, and leans into the menace; much of the film is shot in moody darkness, making the actors’ deadly serious delivery simultaneously funnier and more unnerving.
As one can imagine, this incongruous approach can at times make for tonal whiplash. There are moments where the film’s oddball characters and thrift store chic drift toward Napoleon Dynamiteism, a look which clashes with both the film’s darker impulses and its flourishes of satirical surrealism (all pornography in this world appears to consist of grainy, disembodied photographs of women’s breasts). But while these clashes don’t always feel deliberate, they do effectively keep the audience just slightly off-balance. Any given scene could end with a willfully stupid sight gag (like Casey proudly buying nothing but yellow groceries to celebrate his promotion to yellow belt), or with a character’s face being mashed to a pulp. The result is a film both hilarious and almost malevolent– think Buster Keaton starring in Fight Club.
At its core, The Art of Self Defense is a deeply silly film, but also once infused with a pervasive sense of dread and despair. At its most inspired, both moods come into focus at once, as when Poots gently instructs a class of ten-year-olds, “Remember, you’re trying to drive your opponent’s nose bone up into their brain. The key word is up.” Indeed, while one’s focus is naturally drawn to Eisenberg’s oddball lead performance and Nivola’s quotable blowhardism, it’s Poots who is perhaps the film’s Rosetta Stone. As the film’s only named female character, Poots’ deadpan performance belies the calm, seething rage of a woman who has been repeatedly stymied in her attempts to make it in the film’s absurdly hypermacho world, but who stubbornly refuses to quit. It doesn’t feel quite right to say you’ll be rooting for her– as with most of the characters, she glides through the film in aloof detachment, and many of the film’s most gruesome moments come at her hands– but it’s difficult not to empathize, especially as our world drifts closer and closer to that of the film.
In the end, despite its period trappings, I suspect The Art of Self Defense will serve as a fascinating time capsule of the present. Just as seemingly innocuous sitcoms from decades past couldn’t help but work in subplots about Cold War anxieties, The Art of Self Defense practically oozes with the grim ludicrousness that characterizes our current day to day life. When your children ask you what it was like to be alive in the late 2010s, you could do worse than to show them this movie. And when they ask you if you know how to explode someone’s head with just your index finger, you can tell them yes.
The Art of Self Defense
dir. Riley Stearns
Opens Friday, 7/19 @ Somerville Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema