Film Review: ‘The Art of Self-Defense’: Faux Sensei Teaches Fake Masculinity

Updated: 2019-07-24 12:45:02

R | | Comedy, Drama, Sport | 12 July 2019 (USA)

Here’s a minuscule comedy about a meek man-boy who joins a martial arts dojo in search of mature masculinity, but winds up being toxically masculine instead. It’s supposed to be funny. But it’s just so not.

two men sparring
Jesse Eisenberg (L) and Phillip Andre Botello in “The Art of Self-Defense.” (Bleeker Street)

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a skinny, ineffectual, neurotic nebbish. (Eisenberg’s entire filmography is a veritable display case of nebbishes; his is a nebbish wheelhouse.) Casey’s an L.A. accountant. He has no social skills, owns a tiny wiener dog, and works at a deadly boring cubicle job.

Heading home late one night, he gets jumped by a motorcycle gang and roundly stomped. Like the 90-pound weakling in the Charles Atlas ads on the backs of 1960s comic books, Casey decides he’s mad as hell at being bullied, and he’s not going to take it anymore.

He’s on the verge of buying “a gun that fits in my hand” (store clerk: “You’ll be wanting a handgun, then”) but joins a karate dojo instead, with a cult-of-personality type sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

martial arts instructor
Alessandro Nivola in “The Art of Self-Defense.” (Bleeker Street)

Sensei is a veritable fount of faux sensei-sayings. Sort of like Bruce Lee’s “Be like water, my friend,” except that he’s more like the buffoon-sensei extraordinaire in “Napoleon Dynamite”—Rex Kwan Do. “Kick with your hands and punch with your feet,” says sensei. Riiiiight.

two men in a dojo
Jesse Eisenberg (L) and Alessandro Nivola in “The Art of Self-Defense.” (Bleeker Street)

Sensei coaches Casey in all the ways one should be a manly man, all the while dispensing with bon mots of misogyny. Casey should listen to metal music instead of “adult contemporary,” vacation in manly Russia and not soft France, learn German (not French), replace the wiener dog with a German Shepherd, and various such nuggets of brilliant manly information.

woman and man in a dojo
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg in “The Art of Self-Defense.” (Bleeker Street)

Casey is also invited to the top-secret evening classes with the other students who are showing potential, where all kinds of ridiculous violence goes on.

men in a dojo
Casey (Jesse Eisenberg, C) joins a new class of successful karate students, in “The Art of Self-Defense.” (Bleeker Street)

Fight Club Lite

The main problem with “The Art of Self-Defense” is that it can’t decide on its tone. It’s supposed to be some kind of deadpan, quirky, dark-ish, farce-lite, chuckle-lite, vaguely amusing, slightly whimsical, sort-of-entertaining parable.

All of which serve, inadvertently, to render its escalating instances of hyperviolence as not even remotely believable—just sort of incongruous, shocking, and off-putting. It’s a comedy formula that’s hard to get right.

But basically, in this telling, toughening up through karate reveals that Casey + confidence = not a very nice guy. This kind of self-centered, rather cruel individual is the rotten pearl outcome of this toxic dojo oyster, with its insane sensei and ridiculous old-school masculinity. Real Asian old-school dojos weren’t about this kind of nonsense; they were about balance. This is some Western foolishness.

martial arts instructor and photo of sensei
Alessandro Nivola in “The Art of Self-Defense.” (Bleeker Street)

So, you know, duh? What’s the point? The downtrodden nebbish has lived, until now, a life of resentment and, once empowered, becomes ruthless and takes what he wants? Kinda like user-and-abuser-pyramid-scheming Keith Raniere, and multimillionaire and girl-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein?

And if that’s the story—why a comedy? And especially, why one so stubbornly low-watt and low-weird? It neither tells an uplifting story of a boyhood-to-manhood rite of passage, nor does a believable job of presenting a sensei who pretends to be Mr. Miyagi (from “Karate Kid”) while having Cobra Kai in his dark heart. He’s a con-man sensei. Like Keith “The Vanguard” Raniere, who made his acolytes wear different colored sashes to indicate their rank—which he stole from his childhood judo dojo belt-system.

But that’s just not funny.

‘The Art of Self-Defense’
Director: Riley Stearns
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello, Leland Orser, David Zellner
Rating: R
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Release Date: July 12
Rated: 1.5 stars out of 5

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