Few things in our current social conversation are as en vogue as the term toxic masculinity. It’s everywhere with its broad meaning and even broader application. It’s something the new film “The Art of Self-Defense” seems obsessed with and you’ll have a hard time finding a review where it isn’t mentioned (I’m already guilty myself).
The trailers for writer-director Riley Stearns’ sophomore feature left me excited and completely onboard with its quirky, off-beat dark humor. We get glimpses of that but overall it’s hardly the absurdly funny comedy the trailer frames it as. It starts that way, but slowly (and I do mean slowly) spirals into some kind of weird Fight Club/Karate Kid hybrid.
Riley penned his script well before toxic masculinity dread became such a popular thing. Still it seems he is tapping into some of those anxieties which certain audiences are sure to be drawn to. But how serious can you take such intentionally over-the-top characterizations? And can you fully embrace it as effective satire when it’s all over the map narratively, tonally, you name it?
Whatever Stearns’ intent, one thing he does nail is the casting of Jesse Eisenberg. He’s the right guy to play Casey Davies, an ever-squeamish milquetoast trying to navigate through the rough and tough world of hyper-masculinity. He’s bullied by the real men at work, pushed around in the grocery store parking lot, and worst of all severely beaten by a group of motorcycle riding thugs.
While walking home Casey passes by a karate dojo and is drawn to the manly grunts coming from inside. The dojo is ran by the film’s central avatar for toxic masculinity who demands that everyone call him Sensei (he’s played by Alessandro Nivola). Casey explains “I want to be what intimidates me” so he signs up for classes. He’s quickly seduced by Sensei’s machismo and his wacky brand of manhood.
Eisenberg and Nivola fit great with the movie’s deadpan deliveries and bone-dry emotional center. Eisenberg can do these types of roles in his sleep yet he still always brings personality and humanity to his characters. Imogen Poots doesn’t fare as well. She’s given the thankless job of being the film’s lone female punching bag. Basically her role is to make sure we know how bad masculinity can be (in case we missed the message as it constantly blared through the film’s bullhorn).
The comparisons to Fincher’s “Fight Club” comes into full focus during the film’s second half. It’s here that Stearns ditches most of the humor for a darker and more twisted angle. Mr. Miyagi becomes Tyler Durden and for the rest of the way we’re trapped in this not-so-interesting world of embracing violence and reckoning with the consequences. I had me yearning for the first half to come back.
It’s tempting to call “The Art of Self-Defense” an obvious and on-the-nose satirical treatise of its subject. But what exactly is it spoofing? Is it taking shots at hyper-masculinity and the men who prescribe to it? Is it poking fun at how the toxic masculinity consortium views manliness? I guess it depends on how you look at it. Personally, I just wish it wasn’t so wildly uneven and was more committed to its comedy. I guess I’m still wanting the movie from the trailer.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS