There was a time when it seemed Jesse Eisenberg could do no wrong. Critical and commercial successes such as Zombieland and The Social Network Eisenberg wowed audiences and critics. Though Eisenberg continues to appear regularly in film and television, the luster seems to have worn off in recent years. The Art of Self Defense is a 2019 dark comedy with a role that seems to have been written for Eisenberg. But is it good?
Self Defense is the story of Casey Davies. Casey is a mild-mannered accountant who dreams of going to France. He lives alone with his dog and appears to have no friends. His coworkers seem to dislike him and even strangers enjoy picking on him. One night while buying dog food Casey is a attacked forever changing his outlook on life.
The writing in Self Defense is superb. The script does not waste any time flexing its comedic muscle. The cold open sets the tone for the entire movie. There are plenty of ridiculous moments, but the film is filled with snappy comments and witty rejoinders.
It sounds like Self Defense does not know what it wants to be. Is it a silly comedy that relies on odd moments or is it an intelligent comedy that uses clever writing? Not only does it do both, it manages to do them effectively. This can be very difficult as you are asking the audience to respect the strength of the writing and to accept the more ludicrous moments.
Strong acting helps the film pull this off. Eisenberg is excellent as Casey. What makes the performance work is Eisenberg plays the whole thing straight. There is nothing over the top or extreme about Casey. When he says something funny, it just seems like a natural reaction. He is simply a man who is tired of people picking on him.
Alessandro Nivola may actually have the stronger performance as Sensei. Sensei is an over the top embodiment of manliness and composure. His karate lessons are a mix of WTF wisdom and a resigned tough guy act. Again, the character works because of how serious Nivola takes the role. There are no winks to the audience or no sense that Sensei is anything but what he says he is: a strong male surviving in a weak world.
When Self Defense decides to be more ridiculous, it is easy to watch since the characters are so natural. The idea of Casey practicing karate while sitting at his desk at work or someone making underground fight videos, it is hilarious but also completely believable. The script does a great job of taking a serious topic, infusing comedy, but never downplaying the issue.
The plot of Self Defense is deceivingly deep. It seems like it is going to be cut and dry. Man gets attacked, learns karate, then proceeds to get revenge and the girl of his dreams. Instead, writer Riley Stearns’s film takes a look at masculinity. This is true of most movies with this sort of plot. Here, the audience also gets a deconstruction of what being a man means and even of action films in general.
The interactions between Casey and Sensei are antiquated lessons in what it means to be a man. Sensei quickly figures out why Casey has taken up karate and uses it against him. Casey thinks he is learning karate to learn to protect himself; Sensei tries to convince him it is so he can become a real man. The give and take between the two and the conflict in Casey is fun to watch.
Self Defense does its best to never shove this down the audience’s throat. The idea of masculinity is subtly explored through Casey’s life and Sensei’s teachings. Even when it becomes clear what Sensei feels about the genders, the plot allows its themes to sink in. There is clearly a difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity. That being said, a scene between Casey and Anna (Imogen Poots) about blame comes off as pandering.
It is rare to see a movie that allows its audience to have fun while also delivering a message. The Art of Self Defense is a sometimes preposterous story about toxic masculinity. It is unafraid to mix comedy and commentary. Strong performances and great pacing also help make it one of the best movies of the year. Even those who question their manliness will enjoy this movie.