“The Art of Self-Defense” (2019) Film Review

Dir; Riley Stearns. Starring; Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots. R. Color. 104 min.
There is so much to un-pack with this very dark comedy. “The Art of Self-Defense” is like ordering 20 items at once on Amazon and when they arrive you don’t know where to start. Loneliness, self-worth, mindless violence, tuned out parents, douche bag co-workers, uncomfortable sexual situations both straight and gay, gun ownership, and the love of dogs is just the tip of the iceberg. Oh and I almost forgot, this is a movie about karate. It is not perfect, but the final joke in this dark dark dark comedy is one of the best ‘Drop the Mic’ moments I have seen in years. You will be rolling in your seat laughing.
Before I begin my take on the movie, I would like to give praise to Jesse Eisenberg. Every actor has their strength and his is awkwardness. That made him great as Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” and the nerd in “Zombieland” but awful as Lex Luthor in “Batman vs. Superman”. He is perfect in this film.
Eisenberg plays Casey, a lost in life accountant at some non-distinct business in the early to mid 90’s. The film opens in a small cafe with Casey observing a traveling French couple with the man being a total dick to the cashier because he cannot order a proper espresso. Currently working on learning French, Casey attempts to listen in on them and the interpretation is not exactly accurate.
In his mid 30’s, Casey’s life is boring and lonely. He clocks in every day, gets ridiculed by co-workers that enjoy looking at porno mags in the break room, and hangs out with his tiny dachshund pup to watch old re-runs. One night, Casey comes home and realizes he is out of dog food. He heads to the supermarket and ends up getting nearly beaten to death by a biker gang on the side of the road. Recovering from his hospital stay the shy middle-aged man decides to take measures in defending himself.
The first stop is a hilarious trip to the gun store in which he puts in paperwork for a pistol. If you are a gun enthusiast this segment will make you furious. I warned you. On his way home he stumbles upon a local Karate studio lead by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Sensei is a bit bipolar to say the least, but also convincing in caring about a potential new student. A compelling session as a spectator convinces Casey to try it out. When he returns the next day there is a group of young kids being coached by senior instructor Anna (Imogen Poots). Anna teaches them in graphic detail how to kill an opponent while the parents half-listen blankly until the class is over.
After his first few sessions, Casey has become obsessed. He is ignoring his job and only wants to be at the karate studio with Sensei. A quick upgrade to yellow belt has him attend the mysterious ‘night classes’. Our nervous hero goes from fun Karate to “Fight Club” on speed. But he can’t stop, eventually losing his job because of a drive to make those who have wronged him pay.
At this point “The Art of Self-Defense” takes several hard turns which, respectfully, are not always obvious and well thought out in the context of the story. I will let you discover those yourself. Some of the twists work seamlessly, a few are ridiculous. There is no explicit violence or sexual content, well minimal (there is one second of a penis, spoiler alert), but there are certainly events that imply such debauchery.
No denying this is a well crafted indie movie. Alessandro Nivola as Sensei does a phenomenal job and dare I say Oscar worthy. The way in which it is shot on film by Cinematographer Michael Ragen adds to the 90’s aesthetic as well as the feeling of awkwardness for a generation engrained with digital. The issue is that overall it never catches its perfect wave story wise.
The dark humor is spot on. Some moments the dialogue is so deadpan that it becomes impossible not to laugh. Writer/Director Riley Stearns has something worth saying about social dynamics such as smaller minded people being preyed on. It just doesn’t quite come together. One of those ‘take it down a notch’ here and there films. Despite that, “The Art of Self-Defense” is a very solid film. While not everyone will enjoy it as a whole, I’m pretty sure all viewers would find something to appreciate here.
Suck Factor: 2 out of 7 (7 means your movie really SUCKS!)
Written by Byrd
The SUCK FACTOR, how it works. We have flipped the rating system upside down. If a film is classic, it gets a 0. Meaning that movie has 0 SUCKS. If a film is complete trash you must avoid at all costs, it gets a 7, meaning this movie really SUCKS!

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