REVIEW: “The Art of Self-Defense”

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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.

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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).

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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

2-5-stars

23 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Art of Self-Defense”

  1. We basically flipped but kind of come to the same conclusion! I like it slightly more than you, and I actually enjoy the 2nd half more than the first. I found the first not as darkly funny as I was hoping, but I felt the 2nd half blended those together a bit better.

    However, I did not see a trailer for this. Perhaps yet another notch in the belt of staying away from them? I knew what this was about summary wise but really had no clear idea of how it was gonna be laid out. I totally think that could have helped me out in a small way.

    • The trailer really sold a different kind of movie in my opinion. That’s the movie I was hoping for. I can get into dark and absurd comedies pretty easily. Couldn’t connect with this one like I had hoped.

  2. What I find so funny about the last line of this review is the fact that most audiences hated “It Comes At Night” because it wasn’t the movie they expected from the trailers, yet you gave it a positive rating. How do you think that compares to the experience you had watching this film?

    • Love the question. Trailers are a funny thing. Sometimes they do a good job selling the movie. Sometimes they reveal too much. Sometimes the mislead. When you’re misleading you really are walking a fine line. If the viewer turns out liking how it turns out, things are great. But if the results aren’t so good, then you run into issues. For me “Self-Defense” didn’t turn out so great. Kind of a bummer since parts of this thing are right up my alley. But I do know some people who really do love it.

      • Yeah, I’ve had some interesting experiences with trailers myself. For instance, the first trailer for “Waves” didn’t look too interesting to me, and yet that film wound up being really great. On the other hand, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” had a cool trailer, but wound up being a complete waste of time. What I want to know is this: did you see any of the trailers for “It Comes At Night” before watching it, and if so, did it help shape any of your opinions on the film itself?

      • That’s a tough question mainly because (and this will make me sound stupid) I honestly don’t remember. I don’t remember whether I saw the trailers or not. I feel like I must have but how they impacted that review when I first wrote it, I just don’t know.

  3. All right, that’s OK. The only thing I really wanted to know was this: if you hadn’t seen the trailer for “The Art of Self-Defense” before watching the actual movie, would your opinions on the latter be any different, and why?

    • I quite honestly don’t think so mainly because I personally understand that trailers aren’t always great measuring sticks. Their main goal is to sell the movie. But I do know some people do put too much trust into them. For this specific film, I don’t think a different trailer would have covered its flaws.

      Again, I love the question.

      • I’m glad you don’t judge a movie based on its trailer, but what worried me is the fact that you didn’t really make that clear enough in this review. In fact, in my opinion, some parts of it quite honestly read “I expected this type of movie from the trailer, and I got something entirely different, so as a result, I don’t like this movie”. I know that’s not what you were trying to say, but that’s how it really comes off nevertheless. Maybe I’m just alone on that, but still.

      • That’s an interesting read on it. I just re-read the review and found numerous gripes that had nothing to do with the trailer.

  4. You’re right. Most of your complaints about this film don’t have anything to do with the trailer, but the second paragraph (and the aforementioned last sentence) is what really had me thinking that. My apologies for not being more specific, and for possibly offending you with my big accusations.

  5. If you’re reading this, Keith (which I’m sure you are), can you please remove the last two comments I made in this thread (the ones starting out with “OK, good.” and “Crap, I phrased that wrong.”), as well as this one too? Besides them being a bit too personal, they’re also simply not true since my Letterboxd account is back up and running now. Thanks.

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