Move over Yorgos Lanthimos, there’s a new wizard of dark, literal comedy. Riley Stearns’ second feature film, The Art of Self-Defense, is an utterly entertaining and sharply written dark comedy that draws you in and karate chops you upside the head.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey, a meek and timid young man—let’s face it, he’s a fucking pussy—who speaks and thinks a little too literally. After getting viciously attacked while walking home with food for his pansy-ass wiener dog, Casey joins a karate class to build his self-defense skills and is soon drawn into a violent world overseen by the motivating yet possibly psychopathic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).
Though Stearns didn’t write the role specifically for Eisenberg, it’s hard to picture anyone else as the lead; Eisenberg is perfectly suited for his character, who talks with stilted literalism and complete lack of confidence. One would assume Eisenberg, having established a strong career—and also having played Lex Luthor—is more assertive in real life, but he’s so perfect for this role he is Casey, and Casey is Eisenberg. Nivola is terrific as well, nailing a complicated, quasi-chilling character who straddles the line between sinister and hilarious, always in deadpan.
And deadpan really is the name of the game here, most certainly my favorite form of humor in real life but often not on screen, because most movies can’t come close to matching the sarcasm and wit of yours truly. But Stearns, whose previous film was the completely overlooked but devilishly (or deviously?) good thriller Faults, establishes himself as no one-hit wonder; he’s a fantastic writer with a clear vision of what he wants.
The Art of Self-Defense is very funny—I found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion—but if you’re not in the right frame of mind or don’t appreciate the type of humor on display here you could easily go from start to finish missing the entire joke. The movie is serious even when it isn’t, brutal as a foot that punches.
The movie also has a strong message—I’m not often a guy for messages in movies, but it works here, interwoven so deeply into the fabric of the story it’s impossible to tell them apart: a message about men not being pansy ass pussies. Being able to defend themselves. Willingness to go on the offense. A desire to be better than women. Not owning fucking wiener dogs.
Stearns’ takedown of toxic masculinity is masterful, the equivalent of a black belt systematically defeating his or her opponent a limb at a time, wearing them down emotionally, physically, and everything in between. And while he isn’t subtle about it, his message never overwhelms the film’s entertainment value.
The Art of Self-Defense isn’t for everyone, but it’s a darkly funny and well written comedy that works on many levels.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.