“I’m afraid of other men. I want to be what intimidates me,” Jesse Eisenberg’s character says to his new karate sensei in The Art Of Self-Defense, a handy encapsulation of the film’s plot.
Eisenberg plays Casey, a socially awkward accountant living in an unnamed town who has survived a brutal, unprovoked attack and is desperate to stop feeling afraid, to start feeling like “a man” again (or for the first time?). His quest takes him first to the gun store and then to a dojo, which becomes the film’s home base.
Toxic masculinity, it’s what’s for content in 2019. First, there was Cobra Kai, then there was Shaft, and now there’s The Art of Self-Defense. If Cobra Kai was surprisingly nuanced (an ’80s bully discovers introspection) and Shaft was a little reactionary (’70s sex machine teaches his millennial son how to fuck), The Art of Self-Defense is the arch, arthouse take on the genre that lands somewhere between Wes Anderson and Napoleon Dynamite. The tone of arch detachment is most of what makes it occasionally funny, but it’s always what keeps it from getting deeper into the subject matter.
Alessandro Nivola plays Casey’s mentor, a sensei who goes only by “Sensei.” The Art of Self-Defense ekes a fair amount of humor out of Sensei’s dubious mentorship, which involves pushing Casey to masculinize every aspect of his life, from his choice of dog (Sensei suggests trading the dachshund for a German Shepherd), study of a foreign language (Sensei urges German over French), and taste in music (Sensei suggests heavy metal). The way everyone speaks in stony declarations, it’s a bit like having maleness explained to us by Google’s suggested search algorithm.
The conflict inherent to any evaluation of martial arts is whether it can be edifying without being bloodthirsty. Can you use it to make yourself feel better without making others feel worse? Karate Kid, despite it being tangled up with some dated ’80s Orientalism, succinctly articulated this conflict — Miyagi-do vs. Cobra Kai — and even positioned it unsensationally. Martial arts was just an extension of the wider world, and thus has both its Mr. Miyagis and its John Kreeses.
Martial arts in The Art Of Self-Defense is a vehicle for toxic masculinity, which as the film sees it is both predatory and self-perpetuating. There’s something to that, but many of its insights are as convoluted as they are glib. Much of the humor comes from Casey and Sensei’s deadpan declarations of purpose and awkwardly confident aphorisms. Both Nivola and Eisenberg excel at this kind of humor (in some ways I prefer Nivola’s Sensei to Diedrich Bader’s Rex Kwon Doe in Napoleon Dynamite). As is Imogen Poots, playing Sensei’s top student (she could give other British actors lessons on American elocution).
But The Art of Self-Defense‘s overarching tone of deadpan awkwardness also means that Casey’s weakness or non-masculinity gets all tangled up with his general Aspergersiness — his inability to relate to people or to understand social cues. Is it his lack of manliness that keeps him from making friends, or just his lack of social grace? And if it’s actually Casey’s lack of empathy and inability to relate that’s keeping him from feeling comfortable and having friends, aren’t those traditionally seen as feminine qualities? And is that Casey‘s mistake, or the film’s? It’s often hard to tell what writer/director Riley Stearns intended.