THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE
A dark and weird comedy with a point—but probably the most consistently funny thing we'll get this year, so happily it's that kind of "dark and weird comedy with a point"—The Art of Self-Defense has a lot on its mind, but lays it out with stark clarity, surprising precision, and strong laughs.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns
Spoiler alert: moderate
The Art of Self-Defense is a lot of other things—well, it's a funny art comedy about toxic masculinity by way of karate, chiefly, so I guess it's just the one other thing, though you can add "psychothriller" and "character study" if you have extremely generous definitions of those terms, and "martial arts film" if you have no definition of that phrase whatsoever—and all that's probably more important in the long run. But what's likely easy to underrate about it is what a remarkable work of storytelling efficiency it is. That's made clear in the very first shot of the film, which opens on Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) sitting in a low-rent coffee shop, and within seconds—without a word—the film has already made a grand gesture that tells you what Casey's movie's going to be about: almost immediately, the camera decides Casey isn't worth its attention, and is already panning toward the sound of the door opening, where it finds a shitty French tourist couple that it judges to be much more compelling. It follows them for maybe two full minutes, as they speak in their own tongue, expressing their dissatisfaction with the quality of American coffee, and the quality of Americans. They make a game of guessing as to the precise nature of Casey's self-evident loserdom. He sits there, and says nothing. When the scene transitions, it's a hard cut to a cassette in Casey's car: a French lesson.
With that, we have almost the whole movie figured out, and we haven't even gotten to any karate yet. We recognized Eisenberg, so we know that Casey's the character we're actually supposed to be interested in, and that the film (presumably) must be interested in; and in the faint dreaminess of the camera move and the cinematography, it has to have taken on Casey's own subjectivity. And this means that that camera move was, in a sense, motivated by Casey himself, who feels (and perhaps is) weak and unworthy, persecuted and put-upon by random acts of humiliation and violence that he believes, deep down, he deserves. It is also funny, in a cruel way that you probably ought to feel uncomfortable with laughing at, because it makes you the bully; but as Self-Defense is about comic self-loathing and the lengths to which this will drive Casey, this is something else that you need to know about it, and you need to know it right off the bat.
I don't think Self-Defense ever gets more rigorous and flawless than those first few shots and cuts, and there are enough quibbles—mostly matters of what I'd call calibration, which might just be a synonym for "taste"—that I'm not willing to declare it perfect. But director Riley Stearns keeps it reasonably rigorous; its screenplay, also by Stearns, is mechanically flawless, almost every single small detail and throwaway joke in it taking on some essential role eventually. Maybe it's not always as invisible about it as it presents itself. (I figured out the "twist" in almost the very moment it set it up, and indeed I suspect that's what the movie wants, intending to reward you for clearing the low bar of being cleverer than our hero.) But sometimes the plot comes together in ways you never saw coming, as an early bit of what looks like nothing but amusing (and sledgehammer-subtle) social commentary turns out to have been an impressive sleight of hand, revealing itself over an hour and a half later as crucial to the resolution of a shocking, satisfying, and (in this case) very perfect climax. I think you get so used to movies that are full of extraneous stuff that it's downright blindsiding when one has a script where everything actually matters.
Well, since we've already gotten the humiliation, the violence can't be too far behind: soon enough, Casey has to go get some dog food for his cute little daschund, and on his way back home is mobbed by a gang of masked bikers, who savagely beat him. Shaken and traumatized, his obvious first move is to buy a gun, but, stymied by a waiting period, he's tempted instead by the sounds of masculine exertion in a nearby karate dojo. There he finds his dark mentor, named, apparently, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who invites him to classes. Casey is mesmerized by the strength and self-confidence Sensei promises, and is therefore able to overlook Sensei's imperious ways and the self-aggrandizing bullshit of his spiel—or else Casey truly does understand, in a deep mystical way, what Sensei means when he says "punch with your feet, and kick with your fists"—and Casey is also able to overlook the blatant sexism with which Sensei treats his most talented student, the only woman he teaches at all, Anna (Imogen Poots). Which means that Casey sticks around long enough to get sucked into Sensei's increasingly bizarre underworld of gonzo masculinist insanity, especially as Sensei takes a personal interest in his case. But, eventually, Casey notices that his increased self-esteem has come at the cost of becoming, firstly, the extension of a madman's ego, and, secondly, a fucking asshole.
I know: it's not ideal to gunk up a film review by citing a bunch of other movies, but The Art of Self-Defense is, after all, bound to remind you of a lot of other movies. I mean, obviously it's going to remind you of Fight Club—if they had more proximity in time, there'd be a hue and cry of "Fight Club rip-off." That's kind of true, if slightly uncharitable. The films' respective aims might absolutely accord, but the manner in which they pursue them don't.
Eschewing the irresponsible energy that defined Fight Club—and this is the first reason why I think Self-Defense falls a little short—we have a film that makes it plain enough why Casey might fall under Sensei's spell, without ever seeking to viscerally involve the audience in his seduction. Instead, it presents Sensei's tutelage as, if not outright overtly menacing from the jump, then at least plenty off-putting. Which is where the mannered performances and rigid shot structure and the artificiality of the dialogue come in, and these owe less to David Fincher and way, way more to Wes Anderson circa Rushmore—or rather, somewhere halfway between Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, which is to say halfway between his "normal" indie comedy phase and the moment he became more interested in dioramas than anything resembling reality—and while it's certainly true that any given conversation in Self-Defense is delivered within more-or-less the same psychologically-detached, spiritually-broken, overly-formal idiom, there's a chilly superiority to it that isn't like Anderson's movies at all, which at bottom are melodramas that love their characters and, for all their flaws, want them to be happy. Self-Defense wants its characters to be happy, too, but finds it hard to believe that they deserve it. Which means it probably is what they say, that it's more like a Yorgos Lanthimos film; but it's also too kind for that. It's also reminiscent of Sorry To Bother You, in that both are weird comedies that exist in their own pocket dimensions leftward of the universe we know, and both take on certain zeitgeisty topics of our day. But that's probably just that both films' directors have "Riley" in their names.
It's especially like Richard Ayoade's The Double, though, something that would doubtless be noted more often if anyone had seen The Double, and not solely because both films star Eisenberg, but yeah, that's an awful big damn part of it: for Self-Defense uses Eisenberg in almost exactly the same way. In fact, Eisenberg's Casey is effeftively just a reprise of the first half of his dual-character performance in The Double: a diffident beta who's likeable enough but still contemptuously pathetic, and in desperate need of a new way of life. And if this still sounds too general—Eisenberg has played a diffident beta in, like, forty separate films—then they also have the exact same generic accounting job and the exact same simmering rage and even a lot of the mannered dialogue that Eisenberg handles so well here feels like it could've come from Ayoade and Avi Korine's own script. Certainly, the unreality that both films exist in helps too.
And yet Self-Defense stands on its own anyway, an essential companion piece. The Double advanced a critique regarding masculinity, but mostly in connection with women, and therefore asked some pointed questions about how women help construct masculinity; a necessary conversation, if a fraught one. Self-Defense dispenses with that connection, giving itself the easier job, and treats with masculinity as an entirely independent notion that doesn't have much to do with women or femininity at all, except as a rhetorical cudgel and a negative comparison, and the misogyny it presents isn't driven by the barest flicker of sexual desire. It's damn near nihilistic, positing a worldview where women aren't really useful even for fucking, because fucking is a distraction from establishing hierarchies based on punching boards. Both films are after the same basic thing; the nuances make each valuable in their own way. But since bringing it up at all begs for the qualitative comparison, I guess I'll bite: The Double is clearly the stronger piece of cinema, from the movie magic of two Eisenbergs in the same frame to its construction around its idiosyncratic musical cues to the inventive depth of its fantasy world—no 60s Japanese pop soundtrack or electropunk offices here, just a quotidian reality that you only belatedly realize is tilting toward cartoonishness, whereas the biggest dropped ball in the whole film is that it doesn't even seem to have a score until two-thirds of the way through. On the other hand, The Double isn't as good at prosecuting its gender theoretical argument. It also isn't as successful as a comedy. Self-Defense is terribly successful as a comedy.
A lot of the humor in Self-Defense, in fact, is driven by the characters' tendency to just declare all of its thematic points out loud. Sometimes this comes with counterintuitive spins that highlight how arbitrary masculinity can be (Sensei complains that women simply aren't emotional enough). Often it comes with an "undercurrent" of homoeroticism that disturbs precisely because it's so inhuman and sexless. No matter what it does, it does it always with the straightest possible face: its characters exist without a glimmer of self-awareness, framed in by their neuroses and hatreds and by severe boxes of ugly brown-and-mauve commercial spaces, all lit with yellowish and barely adequate lighting, and this makes all their pompous statements of random pseudo-profundity even funnier. Best of all, every now and again, Self-Defense just tacks toward some straight-up absurdity: a bit with belts kept me laughing, probably rather obnoxiously, on and off, for minutes after it ended. But even this moment underlines how uncritical and dumb these characters have to be.
It is, of course, a feminist work that (by necessity) focuses on a man, and likely believes it does more with its lone woman than it actually does. Poots' acting is as on-game as anyone else here, and to her credit she's doing justice to Anna by struggling to break free of her surroundings in her performance, too—if any of the three leads is the "best," I reckon it's Nivola, but only because Sensei is by far the showiest role within the confines of this aesthetic—but ultimately Anna sits on the edges of Casey's story, a symbol more than a character even on the lowered terms set by an allegory; and it's hard to say she's more than an instrument of Casey's potential redemption. Yet one of the best things about the movie is that it at least suggests that Casey ought to return the favor. Ultimately, Self-Defense, for all its hard edge, is very much a fable—a non-subversion subversion of the Hero's Journey, a reminder that, after all, there's nothing quintessentially masculine about it (Return of the Jedi knew this)—and it finds that in the midst of all our violence and blood and oppression, there's a small (very small) spark of hope.