The Art of Self Defense is one of those “literally me” movies written about in this Last Movie Outpost article. It starts out as a cringe comedy about an awkward man in awkward social situations. It doesn’t necessarily toe that line, however. For this reason, we will avoid big spoilers.
The Art of Self Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg in the type of role he does best. He is not Lex Luthor at the end of the day. He is a more refined Napoleon Dynamite. In The Art of Self Defense, he lives alone with a small dog in a wood-paneled apartment that might have come from No Country For Old Men, and reads photocopied dude magazines.
Does he have a life or date? Surely, you zest, sir!
After being mugged, Eisenberg decides to learn karate to overcome his PTSD. He joins a local school run by an enigmatic teacher played by Alessandro Nivola, who was Castor Troy’s brother in Face/Off. One of Nivola’s students includes Imogen Poots, who spends most of the movie in raccoon makeup.
This begins Eisenberg’s journey of becoming a man. The Art of Self Defense is not only a “literally me” movie, it is also a Chuck Palahnuik-type story about the effects of being emasculated in a modern society that offers little opportunity for men to establish honor.
A Stearns Teacher
The Art of Self Defense is written and directed by Riley Stearns, whose biggest film credit is being the ex-husband of Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Stearns is a real-life black belt and uses his experience with martial arts school culture to great effect: the dingy dojo, the middle-aged men shouting through awkward katas, the pseudo-military discipline, the grandmaster mentions, speeches on karate philosophy that sound deep but are kind of nonsensical, kids fumbling through moves, dutifully tuned-out while their moms sit on the sidelines and wonder if any of this is going to make their sons the men their fathers did not turn out to be…
Though it might seem to be done in a mocking way, it’s not. These characters are regular people, but they have not accepted being regular. They are striving to be more.
Stearns proves himself to be a deft writer and director within this kind of story. The type of comedy in The Art of Defense does not work for everyone, but I greatly enjoyed it. The movie contains numerous one-liners, but they are delivered with utmost seriousness. There were likely a lot of guffaws in the outtakes as performers tried to say them with a straight face.
The talk one student gives as he explains how Eisenberg needs to kick like a punch is great. Likewise, Nivola telling the class how his master was killed by a shotgun blast to the face after being mistaken for a bird while out on a hike is absolute madness.
Yet, somehow, the movie never slides into total absurdity even as it constantly presents the absurd. The viewer becomes invested in all of these characters as they carve out their own little epic story within the constraining universe of a small midwestern city that probably doesn’t even have a Culvers. It likely has two Subways, though…if you count the one in a gas station.
Kick Like A Punch
The Art of Self Defense dares to reach a satisfying conclusion for a small, indy-style film. Artistic ambiguity is gratefully told to take a hike. Characters end up in destinations that seem natural. It all culminates in a martial arts showdown that is ubiquitous to all martial arts movies. Yet, Stearns handles this one in a way that is surprising, but fitting, within the story and the way these people operate. None of them have morals, but they do have codes.
The Art of Self Defense was released into theaters in 2019. It made $2.4 million. Despite this poor showing, reviews have been kind to it down the line. If you like movies like The Kid Detective, check out The Art of Self Defense. It is quite similar in style.