In Brief: The Art of Self Defense is more about the art of making a very dark, quirky movie.
Jesse Eisenberg loves doing odd, quirky movies. He’s not super buff or Hollywood handsome so it makes sense. Plus, if he’s in one, even if it doesn’t quite work, the chances are it’ll be a very interesting project.
His movie picks line up with my movie tastes. I love an odd, quirky movie that does double-duty and — plot-wise — heads toward down-and-dirty dark. That pretty much sums up The Art of Self Defense.
Eisenberg is Casey. He’s a man with no life. Casey is an auditor who lives alone with an adoring dachshund. The dog is out of food so Casey walks to the store and on the way home he’s mugged by a gang riding motorcycles. He recovers from his injuries but not from the vicious attack.
So Casey decides to buy a gun.
Before the waiting period for the purchase is up, Casey stumbles onto a karate class. He’s impressed with Alessandro Nivola’s Sensei and signs up. For some reason Sensei is fascinated with Casey. That relationship and Casey’s insecurity, and a lot of weirdness, and off-beat people at the karate school drive this story to some bizarre and unexpected places. Add butt-kicking climax to the mix and you have the year’s weirdest — but oddly satisfying — movie.
Two things drive the movie. The first is the performances. Eisenberg, Nivola and Imogen Poots play the three main characters. Eisenberg (The Social Network and the Now You See Me movies) specializes in awkward. Casey is a man struggling to connect with the world in even minor ways. Eisenberg — and this exceptional script — have him wanting to be macho but macho is as foreign to Casey as the French language he’s attempting to learn. To compensate for absolutely no personality at all, Casey walks robotically through huge parts of the film.
No one waxes robotic better than Eisenberg.
Nivola (Junebug, Laurel Canyon) is one of those rare you’ve-likely-never-heard-of actors that makes every movie better. His Sensei has similar problems. He takes alpha male to a whole new level and everything has to be as masculine as possible. Sensei’s rules have rules.
He is obviously quite able to take care of himself and is Casey’s idea of a man’s man. But like Casey, Sensei is a twisted man missing those critical personality parts that make a person whole.
Poots — who has alpha male tendencies of her own — adds understandable anger to the plot and a different kind of machismo to a movie packed with testosterone.
Each of the three characters intrigues the other and — in turn — we are intrigued and wonder throughout the film where writer/director Riley Sterns is going to take this obviously original film.
Every scene has tension that lies just beneath the surface. You expect things to happen and they don’t. In turn that pushes you to the next scene where you also think something bad is going to happen. Eventually bad things do and they drive The Art of Self Defense toward a climax packed with surprises that aren’t really surprises.
His film is also forgivably flawed.
Sterns’ movie has lots of “oh-come-on-now” sequences, and scenes and places where reality is slidden aside. No. Let’s make that shoved radically aside. Several plot points catch you off guard and lead to the need for the suspension of disbelief. Or put another way, your own art of movie self defense.
Those same surprises also — by the point of climax — more than make up for the wonder hows and whys you’ll be scratching your head about as you leave the theater.
The Art of Self Defense — put plainly and simply — is a really weird movie. Good weird but weird nonetheless. It’s also not for everyone. But if dark quirky is your thing, it is one I highly recommend.
Director: Riley Stearns
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello
A simple story. Complex yet also simple characters. Dark. Tense. Yet funny. This one is all over the place good. Give it a 4 on the 0 to 5 scale.
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Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.