Comedies can be a hit or miss. Sometimes jokes will land while others just fall flat on their faces. But the thing about comedies is that it’s subjective to everyone. For me, dark and absurd comedies are one of the many facets of the genre that I just connect to so much. And then you add an aspect like toxic masculinity and misogyny and you have me. That is exactly what The Art of Self-Defense accomplishes.
In the #MeToo world that we live in, a film like this can accomplish a lot. If at the surface it looks like a simple male comedy, it’s much deeper than that. The undertones of the toxicity of the environment that the characters find themselves in weave in as the movie progresses. You think at first this is all about the main character, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) but in reality, it’s about everyone, Casey is just our way in.
The reveal of the truth about the dojo isn’t shocking since you can see it coming but the way it’s weaved into the story is incredible. You can always feel like something is wrong with the way everyone talks about Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and the way the man talks. But it’s when the Sensei talks about Anna (Imogen Poots) and what being a man is about that everything starts to click. So when everything unfolds, you just enjoy it because everything has been set up perfectly.
The mystery of who attacked Casey is never the most important thing about the film. I figured it out really quickly and when you just think about it, it’s really easy to figure it out. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter. Casey doesn’t need to figure out to see how toxic his environment is, he sees it but it’s only when everything is exposed that he knows he needs to exert a plan in order to be free.
What makes the film is not only the acting, which is stellar by the way but just the absurdity of the script and situations the characters find themselves. The whole movie, Casey is insecure and the only time he feels powerful is when he wears is a belt. So he decides to make a belt for everyday use. At that point, it’s okay because we have seen Casey go overboard with the colour yellow. After he gets his belt, there’s a montage of him going to the store and just buy products that are yellow. It’s absurd and stupid but it’s also so powerful because we see who Casey is.
But the best thing is when he arrives with the belts for everyone and pulls one out for the Sensei. A black belt. At that point, I just couldn’t control myself. I was laughing so hard because it was so absurd but it just worked so well. Because the whole movie we have seen how these men live in the world of karate and how they let it control their life. So it works but it’s also so stupid that you can’t help laughing. Because this man is getting excited over a black belt, a normal-looking black belt.
While Eisenberg and Nivola are solid and give incredible performances, I think that the crown goes to Imogen Poots. While her role is smaller than her male co-stars, she does so much with little. She plays a woman who belittles all the time but never gives in. She always seems in control until she fights and then you see the anger that she builds up inside. She wants to prove herself to a man that will never see her as his equal because of her sex. Something almost every woman can understand. And the more the film advances, the more nuance her performance gets. It’s a thing of beauty to see unfold and gives the film this other side that wouldn’t have been there had she decided to play it a different way.
The Art of Self-Defense will probably become a cult classic. It has everything to be that, but also think it should be on your must-watch list of the year. In today’s world, it’s premise and theme are extremely important. It’s a thing of beauty to see a film that you think will be one thing to only become something completely different by the end. The filmmaker, Riley Stearns, has something to say and I think everyone should listen because the way he decided to say it is special. At least, he got my attention and I can’t wait to see what he’s got in store.