From the classical heroes of Greek myths to the archetypal western protagonist, there has always been a predominant concept of masculinity that has grown alongside cultural expectations to influence the ideas many men have about how they must act and think in order to have the most value. Recently, changing attitudes have forced many to reevaluate these ideas and see that many of them have done more harm than good. Though there has been a push back against this toxic masculinity, the idea of what constitutes traditional masculinity is still important in some way to most men.
Riley Stearns returns from a five year hiatus, following his widely lauded dark comedy Faults, with The Art of Self-Defense, another darkly comedic look at people devoted to a sort of misguided faith. The film follows Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a timid office worker who fears any sort of confrontation but has a desire to adhere to an exaggerated definition of masculinity and to fit in with his coworkers. After falling victim to a brutal mugging while on his way to purchase food for his dachshund, Casey resolves to become capable of defending himself and becoming what he fears. Though he considers buying a handgun, he soon stumbles into karate classes and finds a passion for martial arts and finds confidence while practicing them. Casey soon begins to use his karate to lash out against the world that he has always feared with urging from his soft spoken but intense Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and fellow students who enjoy violence for the sake of violence. It becomes clear that he is no longer learning to fight to defend his physical self but to change the perception others have of him to the polar opposite of who he once was.
Jesse Eisenberg, often cast as an obnoxious, motor-mouthed intellectual, breaks type slightly to play a character entirely lacking confidence who lets his actions, or rather lack of actions, speak for him instead of opening his mouth, but he maintains the distance his characters often keep from acceptable behavior and is still the societal outcast. Eisenberg does all that can be done with the role but he rarely seems to leave his comfort zone to explore the character beyond the screenplay. There is little attention focused on the time his character spends between casting off his meekness and before embracing a new, terrifying vision of himself. Alessandro Nivola, on the other hand, plays the hyper-masculine karate instructor with a surprising duality as he flips between unbridled anger and a paternal tenderness with amazing ease and avoids being the caricature the role could easily veer into being in the hands of a lesser performer. Imogen Poots, the lone female presence in this world of exaggerated masculinity, offers an intriguing sense of a different perspective but isn’t given the time to provide much contrast or insight to the film.
The Art of Self-Defense relies on a particular brand of bizarre dialogue and production design, akin to that found in films from Wes Anderson or Yorgos Lanthimos, in an attempt to be moderately humorous. The film’s gags include a grocery store scene where items bear only the names of what the container holds rather than brand logos and an exchange between Casey and a gun shop owner during which Casey requests a gun that would fit in his hand and the shopkeeper suggests with a deadpan delivery that Casey may be after a handgun. Whimsical worlds have their place in film and can enrich a presentation to further drive certain points home if used correctly. Unfortunately, in The Art of Self-Defense, they not only fail to accomplish anything other than eliciting a few laughs from sheer absurdity, but also undermine the messages about toxic masculinity and what is acceptable in the modern world as they turn away from the humorous and into the horrific.
The concept of toxic masculinity has been a major topic of discussion in recent years as evolving understandings of society have prompted analysis of overt social problems we presently face. In particular, the harmful ways that many men act in an attempt to prove their own manhood are excellent topics to approach in a film; however, The Art of Self-Defense fails to contribute much to the discussion, and is content to aim for a few shocking moments and uncomfortable laughs while simply agreeing that there are problems that must be fixed.