Director: Riley Stearns
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Screenplay: Riley Stearns
104 mins. Rated R for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
I knew absolutely nothing about The Art of Self-Defense before walking into the theater, and all I can say is this was not the film I expected in all the best ways.
Casey (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) is not a strong person. He is uncomfortable in social situations, and he is unable to defend himself when attacked one night on the street. He joins a local dojo where he is trained by an odd and influential sensei (Alessandro Nivola, Face/Off, Disobedience). As Casey’s confidence rises, he begins to see problems with the way Sensei operates, and it causes him to question his leader.
It becomes very clear early on in The Art of Self-Defense that the world these characters inhabit is a strange and surrealist version of our own. Casey’s answering machine is sarcastic about the amount of phone calls he receives. There’s also a strange quality about the dojo. I’m still not sure if the Sensei’s teachings are lies in this world or if that’s part of the surrealist world that writer/director Riley Stearns (Faults, The Cub) has constructed.
Eisenberg does fine as Casey, but part of the problem is that he is essentially playing versions of previous characters I’ve seen from him. He’s good in the movie, but there’s no range or excitement about his role because I’ve kind of seen it before. Again, not bad in the bed, but he’s overshadowed.
The reason I’m not talking about Eisenberg is because of Alessandro Nivola, who plays the peculiar Sensei. Nivola steals every scene he’s in with a special quality of strange which makes him equally comedic and stone cold disturbing. He’s the character I’ll be talking about most months from now.
The biggest problem this movie has is that Stearns dawdles a bit near the end of the film and doesn’t focus on what’s important as the film nears a close. There are some revelations about Casey, the Sensei, and the dojo that feel more important than they end up being. The ending makes up for this because it is exactly what I wanted without me knowing I wanted it. It’s a bonkers ending that is perfect for a film like this.
The Art of Self-Defense is not a realistic depiction of karate, nor is it much of a realistic depiction of anything, and for that, it works quite well. Writer/director Riley Stearns has crafted a unique experience that’s weird and wild and different from a lot of other recent films, and while I would have liked more exploration into the plot threads at the end of the film, and I would have wanted something more surprising from the film’s lead, this is still a very worthwhile viewing experience.
-Kyle A. Goethe