In the last 20 years, Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) has portrayed a handful of unassuming characters. From a shy college student working at a theme park in Adventureland to a socially awkward office clerk in The Double, Eisenberg has made a nice career out of playing teenage boys and young men who wouldn’t necessarily be the first person someone noticed when stepping into a crowded room.
Eisenberg’s also had the opportunity to show off his confidence in movies like Now You See Me and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, so it’s interesting to see him play a sort of hybrid character in his most recent film The Art of Self-Defense — an absurdist satire on toxic masculinity. It’s a cutting dark comedy that uses dry humor effectively in some scenes, but it’s unable to land a final crippling blow to drive its message home.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns (Faults), the film follows Casey Davies (Eisenberg), a soft-spoken accountant whose life changes overnight when he is severely beaten by a gang of motorcyclists while walking home from the store. The incident causes Casey to become terrified of leaving his house at night. When he stumbles into a karate dojo run by a testosterone-fueled sensei (Alessandro Nivola), he believes learning martial arts will give him the courage he needs to stand up for himself.
Stearns does a good job of defining Casey right from the get-go — a weakling who doesn’t like confrontation. In one early scene, a couple, assuming Casey doesn’t understand them, begins to ridicule him in French at a restaurant. Even though he’s recently mastered the language, he sits there unphased.
Highlighting Casey’s vulnerabilities like this is vital to the narrative as Stearns starts to slowly mold him into another character. Urged by his sensei to be as masculine as possible, the most hilariously deadpan moments of The Art of Self-Defense come as we witness Casey transform into a man’s man. “You’re a blade and I’m sharpening you,” the sensei says before instructing Casey to listen to heavy metal music instead of his usual adult contemporary and speak German not French. Casey also decides on his own to stop petting his Dachshund and forego his regular chocolate croissant and orange juice breakfast for black coffee.
The Art of Self-Defense jokingly plays out like the Rex Kwon Do scenes in Napoleon Dynamite. The weird tone might placate fans of films like last year’s Sorry to Bother You or 2016’s Swiss Army Man, but Stearns can’t quite assemble his ideas consistently enough to come out victorious.
The Art of Self-Defense opens at the Santikos Bijou Cinema Bistro and the Alamo Drafthouse Park North July 19.
2.5 out of 5 stars