The Art of Self-Defense (2019) reviewed by Jonathan Berk

Toxic masculinity is definitely a term that is being thrown around a lot, and rightfully so. Writer and director Riley Stearns definitively tackles the concept in his new film, The Art of Self-Defense.  Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a mousey man, and after being brutally attacked and hospitalized, the fear he now lives with leads him to Karate and his Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Sensei trains the overly feminine Casey who loves French culture, tiny dogs, and adult contemporary music to begin living a more masculine lifestyle. It’s a dark comedy with Yorgos Lanthimos-esque dialogue and monotoned performances from the cast with a muted aesthetic that reminds of Wes Anderson. It was hard not to enjoy it. 

The Art of Self-Defense punches you with its feet and you’ll like it!

Eisenberg is perfect in this role and gets to demonstrate how strong of an on-screen cryer he can be. There is a moment where he is truly losing it in the car while driving, and it cracked me up so hard. I would love to see Eisenberg in a Lanthimos film after his deadpanned performance here. Granted, we’ve seen him play an emotionless figure before in the Social Network, but I really think he’s doing some great work in this film. 

Nivola is also fantastic. His performance and ability to convey the awful messages of masculinity simply just work. It is actually quite impressive the amount of nuance everyone in the film is able to deliver, despite the muted performances. Imogen Poots plays the only female character – Anna – who is more brutal than the other students in the karate class. She is introduced as the instructor of the kid’s class, where she promptly chokes out a child, and we learn the rule “tap or take a nap” among the other 10 rules posted on the wall. 

The part of the film that left me a little uncomfortable at the end is understanding what message I’m supposed to take away from the many things mentioned in the film. Casey’s life seems better in some ways after embracing much of the toxic masculinity. So…is it a bad thing, is a necessary thing or is it like other tools, and it ultimately depends on how we use them? The film also brings up guns and gun control, which can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Thus, I left feeling unclear about what Stearns wanted me to feel, despite enjoying the journey of the film. I definitely see that messages in this film could be misinterpreted and used to propagate some horrible aspects of society, which always makes me nervous. 

Final thoughts…

Still, I very much enjoyed The Art of Self-Defense. If you’re into dark comedies and the director’s style I mentioned earlier, then you’ll likely find this a joy to watch. I definitely think this would be a film I’d revisit to further explore its themes, and what Stearns wants to say about them. The Art of Self-Defense earns the Not Quite Golden, Ponyboy rating.

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