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The Art of Self-Defense Movie Review

The Art of Self-Defense(2019) movie poster The Art of Self-Defense

Theatrical Release: July 12, 2019 / Running Time: 104 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Riley Stearns

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (Casey Davies), Alessandro Nivola (Sensei), Imogen Poots (Anna), Steve Terada (Thomas), David Zellner (Henry), Phillip Botello (Kennith), Jason Burkey (Alex), Mike Brooks (Steve), CJ Rush (Other Steve), Davey Johnson (Gun Store Owner)

 

The indie comedy The Art of Self-Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey Davies,
a nebbish accountant who gets mugged one night while walking to buy dog food. Casey is told to take as much time off from work as he needs, which he does, dipping into his unused vacation days. He looks into buying a handgun and fills out the paperwork. But then he happens upon a karate studio, where the charismatic sensei (Alessandro Nivola) convinces him to try out a free class.

Casey, who is unable to carry a conversation at work and for whom even a better than nothing romance seems too implausible, finds karate to be the thing his life has been missing. Without excelling, he embraces the martial art and is so proud of earning his yellow belt that he stocks up on food in yellow packaging and custom orders a yellow belt he can wear with his everyday clothing.

"The Art of Self-Defense" stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey Davies, a timid accountant who begins taking karate after being mugged.

Written and directed by Riley Stearns, the film might remind you of tae kwon do bits from Napoleon Dynamite and The Foot Fist Way. But though the offbeat chuckles flow, Stearns yearns for more and Self-Defense ventures into darker places as part of a study of masculinity. The sensei, who never gives his name as anything but that, seems to be the sage mentor Casey has needed. He switches his pupil off of adult contemporary music and onto metal. And he invites Casey to participate in his exclusive after-hours night class.

The comic tone ensures we're not taking Stearns' masculinity lessons at face value, the way that you could with Fight Club. That David Fincher film does appear to be an influence on this, which judging from the prominence of answering machines and video cassettes as well as the bulk of computer monitors appears to be set sometime in the 1990s. And while much of Self-Defense plays like a Demetri Martin vehicle, that changes when we discover the sketchier aspects of the dojo where Casey, let go from his old job, has been asked to bring the accounting books up to date.

There's a good chance if you find the first hour of Self-Defense breezily entertaining you'll be put off by its final half-hour, which embraces the anarchy of Fight Club's "Project Mayhem." When the shock of the tone change wears off, you'll realize it is kind of necessary to give Casey's arc purpose and growth.

Alessandro Nivola gives a career-best performance as the mysterious Sensei who becomes a mentor and model of masculinity to Casey.

While he emerged as a young leading man of mainstream fare around a decade ago, peaking with his iconic Oscar-nominated turn in Fincher's The Social Network, Eisenberg has been scarce on the big screen of late.
You can see that his tastes and Hollywood's needs have increasingly drawn him to offbeat indie fare like this. He serves the film well and gives it precisely the performance the entire film hedges upon. Those acting chops should continue to keep him in demand and make him a better fit for the kind of leading roles Michael Cera no longer seems to get.

This marks the second feature from Stearns, following his comparably dark and comedic Faults (2014), which starred his then-wife Mary Elizabeth Winstead. After opening in just seven theaters, Self-Defense expanded to 550 locations, making it one of the wider releases to date from Bleecker Street. That seems to be more an understandable vote of confidence from the studio than a sound strategy to maximize profits. Stearns may yet have commercial fare in him, but this isn't it.

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Jesse Eisenberg: The End of the Tour Zombieland Adventureland | Imogen Poots: Green Room Jimi: All Is By My Side Greetings from Tim Buckley

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Reviewed August 12, 2019.



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