The Art of Self-Defense is one of the very best dark comedy’s, if not the most relevant, of the decade.
The use of toxic-masculinity has been on the rise this past decade, where the smallest of films will have any critic worth their salt claiming they found a Chuck Norris-like theme lightly folded into the subtext (Wreck-It Ralph? Clearly a combination of masculine overdrive and a world that can’t get over its lack of control by technology!). If there was any film that finally fully embraces these subjects, it’s The Art of Self-Defense, with a darkly comic script and a trio of outstanding performances.
It would be hard to imagine writer/director Riley Stearns’ sophomore effort coming close or even surpassing his outstanding debut film Faults (watch for a Leland Orser cameo, terrific in the aforementioned film), which he also has written and directed, but it does. His darkly comic script starts slowly but it’s deliberately paced from its dialogue and mannerisms down to its quietest scenes. The Art of Self-Defense has an upward trajectory that builds with every scene until its surprising and even satisfying climax.
The philosophical way almost all of the characters in The Art of Self-defense speak to one another and sound will make, for some, a mundane experience; which is understandable for anyone who loves the crackle of the well-written banter. I would compare this complaint some have with an Aaron Sorkin script or a decade-old cancelled television show called, Life, starring Damien Lewis and Sarah Shahi on NBC, where everyone sounds the same. While this lack of individuality is a valid complaint, as the scenes come together, the subtle line deliveries by the cast are spot on and overcome any reservations one might have when the film gets well into its second act.
The film is well cast, even though you would think they could have found one more speaking role for another female character. Jesse Eisenberg’s lonely, slow-talking (which is quite the contrast compared to his most famous characters), cautious twerp Casey is the straight man, setting up most of the film’s best lines. For example, when he goes to buy a gun, he listens and reacts to the store owner riffing off lines of the odds of death by owning or not owning one in the home; meticulously detailed with the owner wearing what looks like a Lacoste polo, but the little Gator is replaced with a handgun.
Imogen Poots (Popstar) and Alessandro Nivola (Junebug) round out the supporting cast; Poots’s Anna is professionally suppressed and looked down upon by Nivola’s Sensi, who feels women don’t have the hand strength to even rub-down fellow karate students after a tough session. Nivola has the best lines in the film, with the most memorable scene coming from when he hands Casey his yellow belt, then gives him a guide on how what it is to be a man by changing his likes, dislikes, tastes in music, and even going for a dog that’s a descendant from an eastern European country.
The Art of Self-Defense is one of the very best dark comedies of the decade, if not the most relevant. Many films offer a faux black humor, but only in shock value. By the end of the film, it offers the type of true black humor that’s slow-played and offers a greater payoff. Eisenberg anchors Stearns’ film about what it is to be a man in today’s day and age with the old guard always trying to keep their ’80s Rambo way of life, home and professional, upward and relevant. Ultimately, Nivola’s (who landed the part of Dickie Moltisanti in the Sopranos prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark coming out in 2020), role of combining malice and deadpan delivery make for a highly effective performance that’s one of the year’s best.