Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is a mild-mannered individual, no two ways about it and that personality is apparent in his day-to-day life consisting of a routine accounting job, taking care of his wiener-dog and absorbing every aspect of French culture he can. One night, Davies is attacked by a group of motorcycle-riding fiends who leave him brutally injured. Afterward, the perpetually terrified Davies looks for ways to defend himself, at first opting for a handgun before discovering a karate class run by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, channeling Liev Schrieber in his terrific performance). Through learning this form of fighting in this dojo, Davies feels like he can finally take control of his life…and then things get prickly.
The Art of Self-Defense is consistently a dark comedy, and an extremely funny one at that, but it becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on that it’s also an exploration of toxic masculinity and how that behavior spreads around and manifests in people. Sensei’s lessons for Casey eventually go from just being about punching with your feet to stifling his own individual personality in favor of engaging in as “manly” of activities as possible. Instead of confronting his insecurities in a healthy manner, Casey is instructed to solve his issues by becoming fixated on metal music, acting aggressively to any and all people unlucky enough to cross his path and dumping his passion for France in favor of stronger countries like Russia and Germany (I see what you did there movie!), though, shockingly, Sensei also doesn’t tell Casey to become obsessed with the Joe Rogan podcast…
These sequences of Casey engaging in this behavior have plenty of amusing dark comedy in them, particularly thanks to how writer/director Riley Stearns incorporates a dry-witted frank style of dialogue throughout the feature that’s especially funny when applied to Casey now being a macho man (“Let’s do push-ups!”) But a small but important detail in these scenes is that Casey is actually successful at being aggressive, instead of the joke being “Haha, he thinks he can be tough!”, The Art of Self-Defense shows that Casey is genuinely capable of intimidating behavior like being as crude and self-centered as his co-workers. It’s a development that creates numerous opportunities for comedy, especially in how Casey responds to his beloved pet wiener-dog once he decides to embrace this way of living, but it’s not all yuks and chuckles when it comes to this particular piece of character development.
Stearns also uses these scenes to subtly point out how dangerously toxic male-coded behavior can emerge from anyone, not just people who fit our conventional physical profile of dangerous men. Casey can actually inflict physical harm on other people and considering how Sensei has opened his eyes to the process of responding to his personal insecurities in such an unhealthy manner, that’s a terrifying prospect. That’s one of the many thoughtful ways The Art of Self-Defense explores toxically masculine behavior in a fascinating manner. Another example of this is seen in how Sensei’s way of keeping his students, like Anna (Imogen Poots) in line works as a parallel for how the cycle of toxically abusive behavior can be so hard to get out of.
The Art of Self-Defense’s meditation on toxically masculine behavior through the prism of a dark comedy set at a karate studio is an utterly brilliant one that constantly manages to both leave one’s brain contemplating and your funny bone tickled. Balancing these two elements proves to be one of the most impressive qualities in Stearns writing especially in regards to how the third act manages to dovetail into a grim thriller without feeling wholly detached from what came before it. It’s also nice how his aforementioned style of dialogue isn’t afraid to eschew straightforward realism in favor of being more pronounced or off-beat in selling certain darkly comic punchlines. Not only is such wry dialogue hilarious but it feels like an appropriate companion to the kind of heightened real-world behavior The Art of Self-Defense is critiquing.
Both the writing and directing of Riley Stearns create a wholly unique dark comedy tone that lead actor Jesse Eisenberg ends up totally thriving in. Eisenberg’s work in comedies (whether they be indie fare like The Squid and the Whale or commercial comedies like Zombieland) tends to involve subdued comedic line readings, so it’s not like this is totally out of his wheelhouse. Yet, it’s a testament to Eisenberg’s talents as a performer that Casey Davies totally feels like a wholly new creation compared to any of his past performances. I was never reminded of The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg when Eisenberg was on-screen here, I simply saw the freshly-realized fictional character of Casey Davies.
The Art of Self-Defense uses Eisenberg comedic gifts for deadpan humor exceptionally well, there’s a whole scene involving Casey gifting Sensei with a box of belts that only Eisenberg could have delivered this humorously. But what’s most impressive to me about Eisenberg’s work as Casey is how he’s able to make this character clearly in over his head but also frequently a menacing on-screen presence. As said earlier, Casey Davies becomes more and more dangerous as the movie goes on and part of why the movies tonal shift in the third act is pulled off so gracefully is because of how Eisenberg always carries a whiff of danger in his performance throughout most of the film. When you have a lead performance like this, it’s no wonder The Art of Self-Defense more than earns its black-belt in the practice of delivering wholly unique and thoughtful dark comedy.