Review: 'The Art of Self-Defense', A Dark Comedy That Packs A Punch

The Art of Self-Defense follows Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a mid-30s accountant that is just trying to keep to himself, not bothering a soul. He floats through life as a meek and scared person, sitting at a restaurant allowing people to openly mock him without even muttering a word to defend himself. He is the weirdo at his office, awkwardly inserting himself into conversations before quickly realizing that he doesn’t belong. One evening Casey is brutally attacked by a motorcycle gang and beaten nearly to death as he is walking back from buying dog food for his little Dachshund. Unfortunately the assailants have bicycle helmets on, and Casey cannot identify any of them, but these random beatings seem to be a recurring problem in the area. Casey stumbles upon a Karate dojo and after observing a lesson, decides that he is ready to try and learn Karate in an attempt to protect himself from harm in the future.

Casey is immediately enamored by the dojo’s Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Sensei is impressed with Casey and his progress and quickly promotes him to a yellow belt, something Casey does not take lightly. The other members of the dojo have a strange mix of being incredibly aggressive, while still friendly and welcoming. It is a dynamic that Casey struggles to understand at first but begins to become more comfortable with - especially his relationship with the only female at the dojo, a brown belt named Anna (Imogen Poots). Karate begins to engulf Casey’s life – when he is not at the dojo training, he is practicing moves in the mirror. Following Sensei’s suggestions, Casey begins to change his mindset to go along with his training. He starts becoming more assertive in all aspects of his everyday life – from the the interactions he has with those around him to the genre of music he listens to (a natural progression from adult contemporary to heavy metal). Casey receives an invitation to join the night class from Sensei which opens his eyes to the sinister underbelly of the dojo and the extreme levels of toxic masculinity present. 

The Art of Self-Defense is a dark comedy through and through. Writer/Director Riley Stearns does a fantastic job setting a tone for the film that enables humor to flow through it without having to blatantly slap you in the face – and having an incredibly clever script doesn’t hurt either! There are so many little nuggets throughout that were hysterical and presented in unique ways, which I really appreciated. The actors deliver many of their lines in a monotone and emotionless fashion during The Art of Self-Defense which even furthers the absurdity of their characters and what they are saying. Nivola knocks this out of the park, with Sensei being chockfull of amazing quotes that I will not soon forget. Stearns manages to weave together a strange mix of comedy, action, and emotion – all while having most of the lines in the film delivered without emotion – that creates a dark and hilarious film. There are certain aspects of The Art of Self-Defense that are truly outlandish and on the verge of unbelievable, but don’t let that bother you. Let yourself sit back and enjoy the world, and absurd characters, that Stearns creates. While Nivola steals the show, Eisenberg also has a strong performance and I enjoyed watching Casey’s transformation as the film progresses. I appreciated Stearns work so much that I will be trying to get my hands on his first feature length film, Faults, as soon as possible. The Art of Self-Defense is funny, clever, and an enjoyable flick that I think you shouldn’t pass up – not to mention we get a mini training montage, so what more could you ask for?

Rating: 4 out of 5