As I was trying to figure out how to start my review of Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense, which expands this weekend, I had to chuckle. It’s not because Stearns made a gorgeous dark comedy that I am chuckling. In fact, he did.
The Art of Self-Defense opens in a small café with our protagonist, Casey deep in his own world. A French couple makes a stop, hoping to find a decent cup of coffee. The coffee, which it turns out is actually swill even by American standards leads to their playing a game, which indirectly involves our said protagonist.
Minding his own business, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) gets up and leaves. We know from his body language, which is as stiff as a board that he knew what was going on, and the next scene cracked the theater up. That’s the type of genius that writer-director Stearns brings to this story. He needed someone like Eisenberg to pull off the joke.
The timid Casey Davies is an accountant and has anti-social tendencies when it comes to the office, even to life in general. He lives a minimalists’ life, but it doesn’t look uncomfortable.
That is unless you’re his dog, the poor little dachshund who goes hungry when his master forgets to get food. A late-night trip to the grocery store results in an attack on Casey by an armed motorcycle gang.
During his recovery, Casey sorts out the need to evolve, to be more than he was. In essence, he needed to stand up for himself. His OCD takes the form of a need to defend himself, bringing him to a gun shop. Between the comical interaction with the gun store clerk and the “cooling-off” period required of all new handgun owners, you’d think that Casey was going to blow up.
He maintains his cool and finds another outlet – a karate school.
This is where we’re introduced to Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola. Sensei has very strict rules for his dojo. Discipline is the name of the game as Sensei sees potential in Casey. Nivola was an absolute joy to watch on the screen; every take he looked as if he was just going to bust out laughing. He managed to hold his composure.
At first, Casey is intimidated, but willing to give karate a try. Kennith (Phillip Andre Botello) is his first sparring partner and the very first lunge Kennith knocks Casey down. Nonplussed, Casey gets right back up, with Kennith noting Casey’s firm balance. It’s these types of off-kilter jokes that make The Art of Self-Defense a joy to watch.
As Casey builds trust with Sensei, he is invited deeper into the inner sanctum. This attracts the attention of Anna (Imogen Poots), a much higher-level student who is subject to the wrath of her instructor, Sensei. One could point out the toxicity of Sensei’s relationship with Anna, and that is in fact the point of the film, but seen in the context of the fuller story and the humor, it plays out as well as it does because Poots was the right choice for this particular character along with the strength of Stearns’ writing.
Casey and Anna form a relationship and it serves as a strong counterpoint to Sensei’s constant berating. We shouldn’t leave Sensei out of this review too much because mystery shrouds the doorstep of his dojo. And, there is a reason why guns are never allowed.
This is the genius of Stearns’ writing as he says so much more than the surface level of the characters. Each situation has a purpose, even if some of those situations don’t end up going much further than their introductions, especially when it comes to Sensei.
Sensei’s teachings throughout the film make perfect sense, because none of the characters give away their hold-card, so it is difficult to “read” the other characters. At the same time, there is a sense of knowing what’s going to happen, even when Stearns manages to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
This is the frustrating aspect of The Art of Self-Defense. Stearns blends the dry wit of Wes Anderson and the intelligence that goes with Anderson’s stories with Martin Brest’s sense of timing.
Stearns can’t quite blend the two together, but the rapidity with which The Art of Self-Defense moves, it somehow seems to come together just right. And in a dog-eat-dog world, this movie fits the bill just perfectly.
Oh, and my chuckle – whomever at Bleeker Street thought of counter-programming this circle of life movie against Disney’s The Lion King, is an absolute genius.
The Art of Self-Defense is rated R and is now in theaters. All photos courtesy of Bleeker Street.