From the second that geek supreme Jesse Eisenberg signs up for a karate class to end his fear of bullies, The Art of Self-Defense sets itself up as the 90-pound weakling destined to live forever in the shadow of Fight Club. The good news is that writer-director Riley Stearns gets in a few good licks at toxic masculinity before odious comparisons to David Fincher’s masterpiece blunt the film’s comic and dramatic impact.
Here’s the setup: Eisenberg plays Casey Davies, a loner accountant whose personality is as colorless as the beige apartment he shares with his pet dachshund. His passive attitude changes when four masked bikers beat the shit out of him as he walks home one night after buying dog food. What to do? Guns won’t work for Casey. But he does sign up at a local dojo to learn the manly skills of karate. The Sensei, played with quiet menace by a stellar Alessandro Nivola, persuades Casey that he’s made the right decision. And the powerful performances of Eisenberg and Nivola take so many twists and turns that predictability is held at bay for longer than you’d guess.
Stearns excels at throwing us off kilter. For starters, what period is the film set in, given the VHS tapes, FAX machines, landlines, and boxy TV monitors? The year 1999 — the same setting of Fight Club — springs to mind. The plot comes at us in 50 shades of sinister as each student vies to be teacher’s pet. And is there a purpose, besides design, that Casey’s fellow students are color coordinated? Henry (David Zellner) wears a blue belt. Anna (Imogen Poots), the only adult female in the class, goes for a flashing red. And for Casey, the belt is yellow.
In his second feature after the 2014 thriller Faults, Stearns amps up the tensions as the sensei delivers lessons that would reduce even Stepford husbands into paroxysms of eye rolls: “From now on, you listen to metal. It’s the toughest music there is, everything must be as masculine as possible.” Unlike Fight Club, which used art to tackle a social crisis, The Art of Self Defense identifies a fresh threat. Take Sensei’s thinking about why Anna will never make it in his dojo: “Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man.” Absurdism? Yes. But also a virulent new strain of anti-feminism among men’s rights activists. It’s here, in this otherwise wobbly satire, that Stearns finds exactly the right comic language to skewer the threat: the kind that draws blood.