This film made me realize that I’m a person who thrives on schadenfreude, that is, the pleasure of watching someone experience misfortune. Jesse Eisenberg is at his funniest when he plays a wimp. But he’s a resourceful, smart, and well-intentioned wimp, and that’s why we root for him to grow and get better. But damn, I have quite a sadistic sense of humor, and I thank writer and director Riley Stearns for bringing that out of me. Enter his new comedy, The Art of Self-Defense.
In this film, Eisenberg’s wimp character is Casey Davies (the film makes a point on how feminine that name sounds). He works in a company whose staff and boss look down on him. He lives alone in his apartment with his tiny pet dachshund. One night, on the way home, he gets mugged and beaten by a motorcycle gang. In an effort to defend himself, he joins a local karate studio and learns the ways of self-defense by the uber-masculine Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and the long-standing brown belt instructor Anna (Imogen Poots).
It’s So Funny, So Dark, So Sadistic
Stearns has conjured up something quite special here. Every other minute in this film contains some of the funniest dark comedy I’ve ever seen, rivaling Martin McDonagh and Yorgos Lanthimos.
The main running gag is the film beats down on Casey. He’s unlucky and things never work out for him. From start to finish, the man has our pity laughs. We’re never laughing at him, more like laughing at the preposterous situations he gets himself in. There’s a consistent deadpan stiffness throughout the film. Either this type of comedy is not your thing and you wanted more of it, or this type of comedy is exactly your thing and you could not stop laughing and did not want it to end.
The point is Stearns uses this comedy to tackle how masculinity can be toxic to women as well as other men, as well as taking an extra step to suggest how progress can be made. From the jokes to the dramatic pay-offs, Stearns sets up certain plot points or images from the very start, only to have them come back in the third act as a final punchline, making the laughs and harsh commentaries hit as hard as punches and kicks to the gut.
The Cast Brings their A-Game
A lot of the humor also comes from Nivola, who gives one of the best deadpan performances of all time. It’s insane to see him deliver all of his lines without bursting into laughter. His Sensei is satire in human form. He’s like PC Principal from South Park, designed to be a hilarious caricature to elevate the film’s message. With the script heavily focused on the chemistry between Eisenberg and Nivola, Stearns keeps his film sharp, simple, and hilarious to digest. Some of the interactions between Eisenberg and Nivola were so funny, the whole Paramount Theatre was in stitches. Look out for an entire running gag that involves the karate belts and what they represent.
Eisenberg also shares an interesting relationship with Poots, who by the way learned and performed real karate to film her scenes in this film. Poots’ Anna makes for a compelling case of a woman who has been there from the very beginning and has proven time and time again that she’s fully capable of performing as well as any man, yet the “system” never favors her. Her character makes for a funny but occasionally suspenseful interaction with Eisenberg’s Casey, since Casey obviously is nowhere near as competent of a fighter. Actually, come to think of it, this pairing is oddly similar to Linguini and Colette in Ratatouille.
An Interesting Shift in Tone and Stakes
As The Art of Self-Defense progresses, Stearns uses shifts in tone to keep the film interesting to watch. At one point, a real sense of danger looms. At another point, a new piece of information has just been revealed, and it re-contextualizes everything that came before it. The tonal shifts can be a bit jarring for some viewers, but one thing is for sure: Stearns flexes his talent as a writer and a director, preventing his film from ever becoming repetitive.
The Art of Self-Defense: I’m Still Laughing
I need to thank Riley Stearns and his entire cast (especially Nivola) for giving me the laugh of my life, because as I’m writing this, I’m still thinking about some of its jokes, giggling like some sadistic asshole. The Art of Self-Defense is sharp on toxic masculinity, and even though that’s pretty much the only theme it explores, it explores every possible corner, all while treating the audience with an overabundant supply of dry dark comedy.
Sure, there may be some pacing issues or jarring changes of tone, but why should it matter when the satire is this on-point? If films like In Bruges, Dr. Strangelove, Fight Club, and The Favourite are your type of comedy, then The Art of Self-Defense is not only a must-see, it’s an easy contender for the best film of the year so far.
Did you see The Art of Self-Defense at SXSW? What did you think of the film? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
The Art of Self-Defense premiered at SXSW on March 10, 2019. It will be released in theaters in the US on June 21, 2019. For all international release dates, click here.
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Kevin L. Lee is an Asian-American critic, producer, screenwriter and director based in New York City. A champion of the creative process, Kevin has consulted, written, and produced several short films from development to principal photography to festival premiere. He has over 10 years of marketing and writing experience in film criticism and journalism, ranging from blockbusters to foreign indie films, and has developed a reputation of being “an omnivore of cinema.” He recently finished his MFA in film producing at Columbia University and is currently working in film and TV development for production companies.