Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Review: "The Art of Self-Defense"

I admit I’m not entirely sure what to make of “The Art of Self-Defense.” My first thought was that it’s like a cross of “The Lobster” and “Kick-Ass,” a dour existentialist parable mixed with a goofy martial arts flick.

It’s a comedy, or at least it thinks it’s a comedy. Opinions may vary.

Certainly, there are not very many laugh-out-loud moments in the movie. Or any. I think I got all the way up to a wry smirk a couple of times.

Jesse Eisenberg plays an anxious wimp who toughens himself up through karate under the tutorship of a charismatic sensei whose quiet ease obscures a maniacal malevolence. Think of the evil teacher in “The Karate Kid” -- “Mercy is for the weak!” -- after he’s had a talking-to by the HR department.

I found the movie often infuriating but also kind of enjoyable.

My main frustration is it’s part of this growing trend of movies, perhaps most notably with “The Lobster,” where actors deliberately deliver their lines in flat, inflectionless tones.

It’s almost like they’re reciting their dialogue rather than speaking it spontaneously. The characters announce themselves instead of exchanging their thoughts.

I think some people in Hollywood believe this is an aesthetic, when really it’s a crutch that’s annoying as hell. It puts the artifice of movie-making front and center. Mostly it serves to keep the characters at a distance.

Writer/director Riley Stearns seems to want to make a grand statement about the modern state of masculinity. It’s curious, then, that he chose to set the story in the mid-1990s or so.

Eisenberg plays Casey Davies, a meek drone in the accounting department of an unnamed large company. He tries to ingratiate himself into break room conversations but is brusquely cast out by his fellows. He has an inexpensive car, a small apartment and a dachshund, and that seems to be everything in his life.

One night while walking to the store to get some dog food -- ‘Why would he walk when he has a car?’ you may ask, though Stearns does not -- he is severely beaten and robbed by some motorcycle hoodlums, seemingly at random.

While recovering he walks by a seedy karate storefront, wanders in and is impressed by the sensei, who holds a hypnotic thrall over his students. He’s less teaching chops and kicks than selling an ethos of self-regard, and Casey is desperate to buy in.

Sensei -- the only name he goes by -- is played by Alessandro Nivola, who casually insults people while purporting to help them. He repeatedly derides Casey for his lack of masculine traits, from his “feminine-sounding” name to favoring small dogs and adult contemporary music. Sensei instructs him to start listening to heavy metal, and Casey begins to mirror the aggressive behavior he’s despised in other men.

After being awarded a yellow belt, Casey is so thrilled he makes a trip to the grocery store and buys only yellow foods, and yearns to wear his cloth karate belt everywhere he goes. This is the high-water mark, comedy-wise.

He starts to bond with other students, including an older man (David Zellner) who shows him the ropes and Anna (Imogen Poots), who leads the kids’ classes and would seem to be the best martial artist besides Sensei. Sensei smoothly observes that Anna will never reach her full masculine potential since she’s a woman.

Things go on. Casey hears tell of a mysterious “night class” with hardcore students and yearns to join. He becomes intrigued with the red or black stripes some students have on their belts, signifying achievements that largely have to do with loyalty to Sensei.

If you think about it, a lot of human activity shares aspects with cultism. There are explicit hierarchies and physical totems doled out as rewards. They only hold what value we choose to invest in them.

I don’t know how much cinematic value there is in “The Art of Self-Defense.” It’s the story of a weak man who learns to get stronger, but finds that strength does not equal happiness as he was taught. That’s an important, but rather basic, lesson on the road to true manhood.

Twenty years ago “Fight Club” spurred a lot of conversations about masculinity, even though not many people thought it was a very good movie at the time. We’ll see on this one.

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