Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a walking catalog of traits that populate the Central Casting definition of a nebbish—he’s an accountant with a gender-ambiguous name and a bad haircut, who lives alone except for his dachshund, listens to adult contemporary music, and likes French culture. He’s so lacking in social skills that you could be forgiven for wondering if he’s on the autistic spectrum, and has little human contact outside of his workplace, where his peers (all stereotypical bros given to discussing their favorite sexual positions in the break room) ignore Casey when they’re not actively abusing him.
Then one day Casey is inexplicably surrounded and beaten senseless by a motorcycle gang who never reveal their faces, making them as undifferentiated as everything else in Casey’s his life. While taking an extended convalescence at home (some of it funded, rather improbably, by his boss), Casey ponders how to best protect himself from a recurrence of this unwelcome turn of events. He first considers buying a gun, then decides instead to start taking karate classes at a local dojo run by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Sensei is handsome and authoritative, and Casey is immediately attracted by someone who seems to have mastered the art of masculinity and could surely help a poor loser such as himself to do the same.
There are plenty of early indications that all is not well at Sensei’s studio. For one thing, he deliberately injures students (and we’re talking go-to-the-ER types of injuries) in class and encourages them to inflict damage on each other. For another, Sensei is not only a pig, but also a first-class idiot who explains to Casey, in all seriousness, that he can’t promote his best student, Anna (Imogen Poots) to black belt because “her being a woman will prevent her from ever becoming a man.” Nonetheless, Casey sticks around, absorbing Sensei’s life lessons and becoming the polar opposite of his former self—no longer Casper Milquetoast, he’s now an idiotic jerk who displays women’s breasts on his computer, listens to heavy metal, memorizes antagonistic German phrases, and is rude and physically violent on every possible occasion.
The Art of Self-Defense, written and directed by Riley Stearns, is meant to be a comedy and a critique of toxic masculinity, but it’s neither funny nor insightful. Everything about it is so exaggerated that it defangs the very critique that it is attempting. All the characters seem to be suffering from flat affect, speaking their stilted dialogue in a monotone that suggests they’re as if they were as bored with it as we are. The film’s palette is heavy on the beige, there’s nothing to place it in any particular locale, and the time period is discernable primarily from the electronic equipment on display. There’s no sense that anything is at stake, and by the time we get to what are supposed to be a shocking series of twists at the end of the film (which aren’t at all shocking if you’ve been paying the least attention), the result is just more yawns in a film already full of them.
Here’s a note for all you budding comedy writers out there—having people act dumb in front of the camera does not equal comedy. Neither does having people behave in deliberately offensive but not particularly uncommon ways necessarily equate to satire. The fact that some people will laugh at anything or anyone that makes them feel superior (witness the success of Cops and its imitators) doesn’t mean you have to set your standards as low as they do. It’s analogous to opening a restaurant that caters to people whose only expectation is a full bottle of ketchup on the table. You can do it, but why would you bother? | Sarah Boslaugh