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After he's attacked on the street at night by a roving motorcycle gang, timid bookkeeper Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) joins a neighborhood karate studio to learn how to protect himself. Under the watchful eye of a charismatic instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and hardcore brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), Casey gains a newfound sense of confidence for the first time in his life. But when he attends Sensei's mysterious night classes, he discovers a sinister world of fraternity, brutality and hyper-masculinity, presenting a journey that places him squarely in the sights of his enigmatic new mentor.Written by
The film is brilliant in its portrayal of how a surplus of physical empowerment and lack of self-confidence mutates into something toxic and grotesque.
The Art of Self Defense
Writer and director Riley Stearns offbeat, black comedy: The Art of Self Defense, serves up a "foot punch" to toxic masculinity. What's a "foot punch"? As Sensei (played by a calm yet sadistic Alessandro Nevola) would explain it, it's like a punch but with your foot. It doesn't make any sense, right? Yet, the cool, confident delivery from Sensei helps a lot of the films crazier ideas seem perfectly normal.
A few days after he is mugged and brutally beaten, corporate accountant Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) decides to buy a gun. For someone as frail, weak, and easily intimidated as Casey is, a knife or fist fight just aren't realistic options for self-defense. After disappointedly learning about the 'waiting periods' gun shops must adhere to Casey leaves the store only to be intrigued by the battle cries heard from the neighboring Karate Dojo across the street. Once inside Casey winces every time someone yells, but is taken with curiosity, could this be the answer? He meets with the teacher of the school, a karate master only known as Sensei who informs Casey, not only is karate the answer to his self-defense problem, it is the answer to each and every problem in his entire life.
The film is brilliant in its portrayal of how a surplus of physical empowerment and lack of self-confidence mutates into something toxic and grotesque. All the men in Casey's life are gross. His coworkers hate him and openly look at ultra-macho gentlemen's magazines in the break room as well as "joke" about inflicting physical harm to their boss and his family (the only friendly, decent man in the entire flick). As Casey delves deeper into Sensei's teachings, he starts to become one of the men he wants to defend himself from. It's very funny and awkward yet an equally troubling performance from Eisenberg. The writing is a balancing act between hilarity and insanity and when they cross the only reaction an audience can have is to laugh. In any other context the brutality and dark themes aren't anything to laugh at, but the story is so well acted and told it works. The sincerity of the characters is the oil that keeps this movie so smooth.
We also know this isn't what Casey really wants, his desire to become what intimidates him doesn't fit, his battle to find a balance is fascinating to watch. One scene he is the ultimate male the next he is getting groceries slapped out of his hand as he apologizes to his bully. Stearn's writing and Eisenberg's naturally likeable persona do a fantastic job at keeping us interested in Casey as he struggles to make the right choices. On top of that and even more fascinating is night class student and daytime children karate instructor Anna (Imogen Poots).
An absolute powerhouse, she stands alone as the sole woman in the dojo. She easily dismantles and rocks her male classmates but is overlooked when it comes to promotions for a new belt. This explores a deeper theme of misogyny in martial arts, as Sensei makes it very clear: karate is for men. Anna's fight to get the promotion and recognition she deserves is one of the more heartbreaking and eye-opening plot points. This is happening everywhere, always and is a small example of the daily hardships faced by women.
I've only covered a few aspects of this film; the story takes wild turns and has more than a few moments that left me totally dumbfounded and caught off guard. This is easily one of the most fun, bizarre, unpredictable films I've seen all year and I adored it. This is only Stearns second time directing and with a comedy this dark, smart and weird I can only eagerly await his next picture.
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