'The Art of Self-Defense' - What if 'Fight Club,' but funny? [REVIEW]

The Art of Self-Defense

Ever wonder what Fight Club would be like it was a comedy? Like, a full-fledged, laugh out loud kind of comedy? Wonder no longer, friends. The Art of Self-Defense has you covered.

The Art of Self-Defense is a film that comes from the mind of writer and director Riley Stearns — a relatively new face in Hollywood as this is only his second feature film, with his first being Faults (which I haven’t seen and know nothing about) in 2014.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots and You Were Never Really Here’s Alessandro Nivola, The Art of Self-Defense is a dark comedy that frequently ventures into the genres of satire and, by the time all is said and done, a straight-up farce.

Casey Davies (Eisenberg) isn’t exactly someone you would call a man’s man.

That’s okay, of course — there’s obviously nothing wrong with being feminine, but it’s something that Casey is very aware of and wants to change. Even a small, meaningless workplace conversation becomes awkward when Casey tries and horribly failures to talk to his co-workers about things like bar fights and women.

The Art of Self-Defense
credit: YouTube

When Casey is unfairly attacked and nearly killed by a motorcycle gang when going out to buy some dog-food for his Dachshund one evening, it’s the last straw. He’s going to find a way to toughen up even if it kills him.

While he initially tosses around the idea of purchasing a firearm, Casey eventually finds solace inside a karate dojo run by a man who only goes by Sensei (Nivola).

To be fair, this is no ordinary dojo and Sensei is no ordinary sensei. The form of karate he teaches is only for the hardcore enthusiasts out there. If Sensei is going to take you under his wing, it means you’re going to have to commit your head, heart and soul to his teachings.

His teachings just so happen to boast these completely fake but persuasive ideas of masculinity — hence the reason why Casey is so drawn to the place. Listening to classical music? Nuh-uh. Not under Sensei’s watch. You listen to metal, and you ONLY listen to metal. Learning French? Not a chance. French is for the lovie-dovies out there. Now, you’re learning a TOUGH language, like Russian or German.

The Art of Self-Defense
credit: YouTube

And, since Casey is a pretty influential person, he quickly finds himself being swayed by Sensei’s teachings. What he doesn’t know, however, is just how far these teachings go.

Turns out, Sensei has a special night karate class in which his lessons go to an even further level of extreme — a level that winds up becoming dangerous and eventually deadly, as Casey finds out all too late that he’s in too deep.

The thing about Fight Club (the movies are very thematically similar) is that it’s been hilariously misinterpreted over the years. A good number of people have watched that movie and their takeaway is that fighting is cool and Tyler Durden is worthy of all the hero-worship he received. David Fincher, of course, didn’t design the movie to be taken the way — the messages are really the exact opposite — but that’s how it’s been taken.

The Art of Self-Defense isn’t going to have that problem. This movie wears its heart on its sleeve and wants you to know how dangerous the ideas that Sensei is boosting.

At times, it can be a little much — the tone gets a little staggered during the third act of the movie. At other times, though, The Art of Self-Defense packs a powerful kick with a relevant and especially pointed message that spares no prisoners.

The Art of Self-Defense
credit: YouTube

Now, we have, of course, seen plenty and plenty of recent movies with socially relevant, heavy-handed messages. Green Book, Boy Erased — these films tried to do something similar and ultimately failed to various levels by becoming too preachy or pandering.

What The Art of Self-Defense does so well is balancing the level of entertainment and messages.

The Art of Self-Defense might deal with some really heavy, ugly topics of toxic masculinity, but it does it with a wink and a grin. I was laughing, even uncontrollably sometimes, by the way these characters were depicted and the various, unexpected decisions that they made along the way.

Part of that is thanks to some really good performances. Eisenberg, of course, can play that nerdy, socially-awkward guy in his sleep, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t good at it. He usually doesn’t get to be this funny in movies, either, but Stearns really let him go for it in a number of different scenes. Poots and Nivola really steal the moments their on-screen, too — it’s probably too early to really be talking about Oscar nominations and I’m not sure if this movie will be popular enough to get any, but both should at least be a part of the best supporting actor conversation based on what we’ve seen so far this year.

Part of it is also just due to a really sharp, thought-out script from Stearns. He creates a fully realized world that isn’t too heavy-handed, yes, but they also don’t go the Ant-Man and the Wasp or Thor: Ragnarok route where it’s nothing BUT jokes.

The Art of Self-Defense
credit: YouTube

All of that to say, there’s a lot of really good stuff inside The Art of Self-Defense. I don’t think this movie is necessarily as shocking as it maybe wanted to be — it’s pretty easy to guess where it’s going and how it’s going to get there within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a ride worth taking. It’s not going to crack my top ten list at the end of the year or anything, but, for what it’s worth, The Art of Self-Defense still made me laugh quite a bit, among other things.

Watch the trailer for The Art of Self-Defense here and then let us know, in the comments below, what you thought of the movie!

'The Art of Self-Defense' - What if 'Fight Club,' but funny? [REVIEW]
  • 'The Art of Self-Defense' - What if 'Fight Club,' but funny? [REVIEW]
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Brandon Schreur

The fella over there with the hella good hair. Movies and TV are my jam, and the fact that I get to write about them on a regular basis is the bees knees.

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