The Art of Self-Defense kicks with fists while crunching numbers

Movie Review: The Art of Self-Defense

Director Riley Stearns bares some surprising truths in a predictable revenge story that evolves into a forensic audit of the masculine identity as Jesse Eisenberg plays a meek accountant who helps a karate instructor reconcile the books.

The Art of Self-Defense

3.5/5

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada

Directed and Written by Riley Stearns

Running time: 1hr 44 mins

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

“Are you ‘fed up’ with seeing the huskies walk off with the best of everything? Sick and tired of being soft, frail, skinny or flabby — only HALF ALIVE? I know just how you feel. Because I myself was once a puny 97-pound ‘runt.’ And I was so ashamed of my scrawny frame that I dreaded being seen in a swim suit….”

And thus, Angelo Siciliano transformed himself into Charles Atlas — essentially giving birth to the modern self-improvement template for men, the muscle-building movie montage, and a bulging billion-dollar industry based on masculine insecurity.

The identifiable fear is another man who is bigger, stronger, faster and, if Brad Pitt’s persona in Fight Club is any example of the idealized male, better-looking and way cooler than the self-perceived ’97-pount runt.’

Charles Atlas Insult

The Insult: The classic Charles Atlas ad appeared in thousands of comic books during the 1960s and 1970s, inspiring young men to bulk up and be manly.

So imagine Jesse Eisenberg: The go-to choice for on-screen nebbish — and, not surprisingly, fictionalized alter-ego to Woody Allen (To Rome with Love) and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). Now imagine Eisenberg starring in a movie called The Art of Self-Defense, in which he plays Casey, a lowly accountant with a miniature dachshund.

If you can see that much in your mind’s eye, you know why this movie review started with a quote from Charles Atlas and a reference to Fight Club. Casey is going to transform himself from lowly accountant to killing machine, and in the process, become a “real man.”

At least that’s the operating system running Riley Stearns’s black comedy motherboard for The Art of Self-Defense. The 33-year-old director of Faults starts up with a rather two-dimensional avatar in Casey, a guy who awkwardly gawks at the frat-boy executives in the lunch room and moseys home to his wet-eyed, four-legged friend.

Eisenberg doesn’t have to stretch a sinew here. He wears insecure like an old coat, baggy and safe between the seams, confident in its ability to hide the discomfort of wearing one’s own skin. He’s so perfectly anti-macho, that we slip into the narrative slot without even thinking as Casey gets beaten up, and looks to empower himself through a karate class.

Eisenberg doesn’t have to stretch a sinew here. He wears insecure like an old coat, baggy and safe between the seams, confident in its ability to hide the discomfort of wearing one’s own skin. He’s so perfectly anti-macho, that we slip into the narrative slot without even thinking…

He enrolls with the Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a manly dojo owner who speaks in testosterone-laced aphorism, and often says how much Casey reminds him of an earlier version of himself. Sensei gives Casey all the tools to defend himself, but there’s a cost.

Fortunately, Casey is an accountant. He knows how to reckon.

Stearns’s broad-strokes spreadsheet bares all in time, but it’s only when you start to audit the details that you fully appreciate the film, and its well-disguised emotional embezzlement. Because if you aren’t really looking at which column Stearns records each entry — and each scene which measures ‘manhood’ through various metrics, such as belt colour, stripes, and pet variety — you may think he’s affirming certain assets, when in fact he’s recording a liability.

Indeed, Stearns is breaking all the rules, giving us a meek man who buys into the macho myth, celebrates his entry into the intimate spaces violence creates, and finally punches a hole into its proverbial skull, using no more than his index finger.

Stearns’s broad-strokes spreadsheet bares all in time, but it’s only when you start to audit the details that you fully appreciate the film, and its well-disguised emotional embezzlement.

The movie has a point, though it’s not easily discerned through the dark runs of graphic violence that feel like gratuitous distraction. In fact, Stearns almost does himself a disservice by meeting all the genre expectations with such style, because you can’t always tell his level of sincerity. Is he going for comic book Chuck Atlas? Or, is he kicking crystals of dry humour in the face of myth?

With Eisenberg and the hugely talented Alessandro Nivola duelling with unsheathed ironic satire, the male ideal gets skewered a few times over — but it’s so smooth, you barely feel it. It’s all still cold, dark comedy until Imogen Poots kicks out the man jams by being more “masculine” than the men — insofar as the abstract metrics go.

Once she’s on the balance sheet, we can bare Stearns’s whole clever scheme which hides subtle points beneath extremes. He twists gender metrics without making it emotional, yet he’s constantly dealing with feelings.

With Eisenberg and the hugely talented Alessandro Nivola duelling with unsheathed ironic satire, the male ideal gets skewered a few times over — but it’s so smooth, you barely feel it. It’s all still cold, dark comedy until Imogen Poots kicks out the man jams by being more “masculine” than the men — insofar as the abstract metrics go.

The result is more of a forensic audit of the male identity, as revealed through the mashed-up corpses of macho men. Every figure is carefully entered, every expense schedule is meticulously crafted, and yet, the moral inventory doesn’t reconcile the actions. Could it be that man’s only hope lies in the hands of a clever accountant — someone willing to re-imagine the manly balance-sheet through a moral lens, instead of the ability to deliver the deadly blow?

It’s certainly more than I bargained for in a movie called The Art of Self-Defense, but that’s only because I made assumptions about the whole equation once I saw its Eisenbergian variables, and deconstructed Fight Club denominators. Only in the reckoning did I see the negative values assigned as typical assets, and see where Stearns succeeded most of all — which is in his insistence on reason over emotion.

He keeps it in the calm, stoic, monotone “male realm” the whole time, which —given the number of horrible things that happen — means the whole thing feels absurd. No one in the movie really modulates the way we expect actors would. And we know they most certainly can, so the lack of verbalized feeling is, perhaps, Stearns’s own voice in the mix.

Without words, he’s giving us the tools we need in The Art of Self-Defense — the most important being a need to question the so-called Sensei, and the ritualization of violence as a defining element of the masculine ideal.

@katherinemonk

 

THE EX-PRESS, July 19, 2019

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Review: The Art of Self-Defense

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3.5Score

Director Riley Stearns bares some surprising truths in a predictable revenge story that evolves into a forensic audit of the masculine identity as Jesse Eisenberg plays a meek accountant who helps a karate instructor reconcile the books. - Katherine Monk

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