Consider this review a disclaimer: ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ is not for everyone. To say that the reactions from my screening were varied is to put it lightly; some moments left the audience laughing hysterically and applauding, and others around me could be heard audibly sighing as the film became more ridiculous. If the crew of TV’s ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ tried their hand at a Yorgos Lanthimos script, it would look something like this film.
The film’s protagonist, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg, ‘Now You See Me’ films), lives with his adorable dachshund, the only creature that Casey appears comfortable around. Intimidated by his macho workmates and feeling further isolated by his own awkwardness, it’s no surprise Casey only leaves the house for work and to buy dog food (the brand is literally called Dog Food). After a brutal random bashing which leaves Casey injured and more frightened of the world than ever before, he decides to join his local dojo (guns scare him) to learn how to defend himself. Casey is taken under the wing of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, ‘American Hustle’) inexplicably quickly, and as Casey spends more and more time at the dojo, he finds himself falling prey to the increasingly aggressive mentality of the club.
I have to believe a gag reel as long as the final cut of this film exists, because everyone manages to keep the deadpan script pitch-perfect. A long-running internet joke circles on the interchangeability of Eisenberg and Michael Cera (‘This Is The End’, TV's 'Arrested Development') and their tendency to play meek characters; however, Eisenberg proves the role truly belongs to him, pulling off Casey’s dive into the more toxic aspects of his manhood with ease. Nivola steals the show as the handsome and charismatic Sensei, a scenery-chewing role that is essential to the film’s success. These muted performances heighten the absurd punchlines and let the smooth zooms and pans of the camera do the heavy lifting in more tense moments.
While it would be very fair to describe ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ as a hot mess (which it indeed presents itself as), the comedic aspects are handled superbly in a number of different permutations (jokes range from those built for a mainstream trailer to those dabbling in true absurdism). Where Peter Strickland’s disappointing ‘In Fabric’ falls down by taking itself far too seriously to let its sillier moments breathe, ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ takes these moments and runs for the hills. There are a number of scenes that are just flat-out ridiculous, aware their sole intent is to make a small giggle build into a bellowing laugh. Some of these laughs come from poking fun at the male tendency to take words literally. Feeling brave in his newly-earned yellow belt but aware he will look ridiculous wearing it every day, Casey provides himself and the dojo with a hilarious alternative, a scene which makes for the films biggest laughs. While the film commits fully to its identity as a comedy, ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ pushes its luck that tiny bit too far by thinking it can simply ride on these laughs. It can’t.
The cast manages to keep the deadpan script pitch perfect
Well-done satire finds success in making its audiences laugh while still making them think. Even ignoring the fact that the film’s twist can be easily guessed after 15 minutes, ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ clearly has something it wants to say about the state of violence in America and how it can influence those who society deems as weak, but it doesn’t quite know how to make its commentary meaningful, sometimes being so unclear as to even endorse what it tries to criticise. Sensei preaches that "guns are for the weak", so why does the final act pivot so heavily on the use of a gun? The film does a great and terrifying job of showing that male anger might be bubbling closer to the surface than we think, even in mild-mannered men like Casey. Instead of probing these ideas with any real criticism, the film scratches at them instead, a move almost irresponsible given the gravity and the timeliness of the issues it's trying to tackle (not to mention how clumsily it handles the dojo's misogynistic values, all of which are hurled at one character). In fact, a lot of the problems with the film become more apparent the more thought is given to them; what’s worse is that these musings only come some time after watching the film, which does not bode well for its staying power.
‘The Art of Self-Defense’ is a truly funny, dark experience that will polarise audiences, hopefully leaving most of them satisfied. Just try not to think about it too much.