The Art of Self Defense Jul 20, 2019 16:43:19 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Jul 20, 2019 16:43:19 GMT -5
The Art of Self Defense (2019)
Directed by: Riley Stearns
Directed by: Riley Stearns
Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg, left) works with his karate Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) to build confidence in The Art of Self Defense.
The Perfect Women is a web-based streaming show I frequently watch on Adult Swim's website: a show featuring four women, two of which professional comedians, taking passing jabs at contemporary culture while critiquing the social media profiles of their viewers, who willingly "submit" them to the show for a "free consultation." It's a fun diversion from the seriousness of life, and one of their informal show topics some months back revolved around the positives of toxic masculinity, of course in a facetious way. One caller mentioned all the great films, such as Taxi Driver and Moonlight, which addressed the newfound buzzword as an overarching theme. I couldn't agree more.
One can (and should rightfully) condemn the stranglehold of toxic masculinity, but one cannot deny it has served as the basis for many great films. The Art of Self Defense is another example: a blackly funny comedy about a beta male whose entire sense of self-confidence stems from a scuzzy strip-mall karate class. Give it up for Jesse Eisenberg, who, after playing Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, proves he was born to showcase characters that embody its horrors.
Eisenberg plays Casey Davies, an accountant who lives an isolated life in a simple pad with his pet dachshund. Every opportunity he has at social inclusion backfires in some way, whether it be his efforts to learn French, which only gets him off-handedly mocked at a coffee shop, or the breakroom conversations with his coworkers, which only go to show that he's out of place at his own job. One night, while he is out purchasing dog food, a motorcycle gang mercilessly mug and beat up poor Casey, who is then afraid to leave his own house. When he finally does, he happens upon a karate dojo in a strip-mall, where he meets the Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Sensei makes such lofty and ambiguous promises to his students: "you will be able to punch with your feet and kick with your hands," he states at one point, while affirming that karate is a language one must learn and that guns, in contrast, are for the weak.
Entranced by the idea of learning the martial art, and partly because it's easy to believe Sensei is the only person ever to have given him the benefit of the doubt, Casey agrees to join. He embraces the gi and the novice white belt that initially comes with it, looking on with optimism that he'll climb up the ranks and eventually earn a yellow belt, before a green, blue, brown, and the fabled black one in due time. Casey's commitment impresses Sensei, who then invites him to "the night class," where innocent lessons turn into a lawless and unpredictable opportunity for violence and brainwashing, all orchestrated by Sensei himself.
The film was directed by Riley Stearns, whose debut feature Faults I curiously missed in 2014. His directorial style and approach to screenwriting resembles that of Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Gentleman Broncos) with its flushed, pastoral colors and closely intimate fixation on its protagonist. Stearns' style is idiosyncratic in capturing the wry moments of Casey's droll existence. He permits his characters to have a generous amount of breathing space in many scenes, where silence or Heather McIntosh's exquisite score takes over, an effect that produces mild calm in an often unsettling film.
Also a part of the dojo is Anna (Imogen Poots), one of Sensei's veteran pupils, who has been just a notch below black belt for sometime. Anna has more outward confidence and is generally more extroverted than Casey, but she's become so accustomed to Sensei's flagrant misogyny that she hardly bats an eye at the fact her changing room is essentially a closet, or that a novice student having to change or conduct the cool-down routine alongside her is seen as a demeaning act for the male. Anna has internalized that she'll likely never see a promotion from her sexist Sensei, but that doesn't stop her from trying harder than any of her peers with hopes of gaining that validation. She's a pawn in an unfair microcosm with a ruler that sees her gender as inherently inferior.
The Art of Self Defense's most pointed display of commentary is the way it reminds us how we're all seeking validation from somewhere, be it larger institutions, bosses, or authoritarians whose praise so often seems elusive when compared to our efforts. Being valued and needed is part of the human experience, and Stearns shows how unchecked loyalty and beta male helplessness breeds this culture of desperation and groupthink. It's a comedy of broadstrokes, and Stearns rounds up a phenomenal cast of champions and a wonderful composer to make it effective.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots. Directed by: Riley Stearns.