While walking home from the grocery store one night, nebbish accountant Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) becomes the victim of a seemingly random, brutal assault that puts him in the hospital. Traumatized by the senseless attack and determined to defend himself, Casey stumbles upon a karate class taught by a charismatic and eccentric sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and his journey toward becoming a real man begins. Five years after debuting Faults at SXSW, filmmaker Riley Stearns returns with The Art of Self-Defense – (very) loosely inspired by elements of his own life, Stearns' film is a darkly comedic satire of masculinity that examines the destructive power of internalizing these toxic ideals. And it's fucking hilarious.
Eisenberg subverts his own idiosyncrasies as Casey, a guy who might be best described as a stereotypical beta-male cuck. He wears his insecurities on his sleeve, mumbling his way through the co-worker bros at his basic office job, which has no problem giving him more than a few weeks off after his attack – it's easy to accumulate vacation time when you have no friends or loved ones to vacation with. Casey lives alone with a small, adorable Dachshund – a feminine breed to match his feminine name and feminine interests, according to Sensei, who encourages Casey to listen to heavy metal and behave like the sort of man he envisions himself to be. Casey doesn't just want to learn how to defend himself; he wants to become the kind of man that scares him. What he doesn't understand is that kind of man is a toxic asshole. His transformation from scrawny, white belt wimp into a karate-chopping yellow belt is breathtakingly hilarious; he's oblivious to the ways in which his attempts to be more masculine only serve to highlight the most pathetic aspects of that ideal, further underscored by his interactions with a karate teacher played by Imogen Poots, delivering a pitch-perfect deadpan.
Eisenberg shoulders much of the film, delivering a performance consumed by pathos in a way that evokes the very best of Todd Solondz. But Nivola is equally fantastic as the narcissistic Sensei, whose self-interest and faux-masculine posturing is so painfully, amazingly obvious. That everyone in this dojo has chosen this man as their icon is the joke that keeps on delivering. Filmmaker David Zellner has a great supporting role as a fellow karate student whose piteousness makes Casey look positively macho in comparison.
In the most simplistic terms, the humor of The Art of Self-Defense could be described as dry, but there's an idiosyncratic rhythm to the dialogue that elevates the film into the realm of the eccentric – it's more high-brow than Jared Hess; more accessible than Yorgos Lanthimos' pre-Favourite films, less regional than Jody Hill. It is, however, every bit as absurdist and dark and brilliant as the latter, punctuated by startling moments of violence. And like those films, The Art of Self-Defense feels like an instant offbeat comedy classic – one to be endlessly quoted and shared and revisited for years to come.
In stark contrast to his lead character, Stearns' film is wildly assured, a formidable follow-up to Faults that feels like a significant evolutionary step for the filmmaker. It's such a simple concept, but one that Stearns heightens and expands in ways that are consistently surprising and impressive – none more so than the tempo of the film itself, which reads like every cut, every joke, every line delivery was committed to memory long before the cameras even rolled.