'The Art of Self-Defense' paints comic portrait of American machismo
"The Art of Self-Defense" - ★ ★ ★
Be prepared for a savage indictment of American masculinity on a horrifyingly hilarious level.
"I want to be what intimidates me," Casey Davies says.
In Riley Stearns' smart and blackly comic "The Art of Self-Defense," Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) says this to Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) as his reason to be the next karate kid.
But we know the truth.
Casey has barely recovered from a brutal attack by members of a motorcycle gang who put him in a hospital for no apparent reason other than they could.
The milquetoast, acquiescing Casey considers purchasing a handgun. But when he sees Sensei's karate studio, he has hope he can stop being every bully's easy target.
Sensei (that's how he wants to be addressed) proves to be a master of turning wimps into REAL MEN. In his small world, he rules, and his adult students will do anything to please him, and to obtain the coveted black belt with a red or black stripe.
Initially, Stearns' bleak critique hones in on the humor of Casey's quick metamorphoses into an alpha dog presence, turning the tables on the office bullies used to humiliating him.
Then, "Self-Defense" takes a dark turn into horror as we discover just how far Sensei pushes his students, among them an adoring middle-aged man (David Zellner) and a young woman (Imogen Poots) struggling with Sensei's unvarnished chauvinism.
Eisenberg skates from an empathetic dweeb to a too-perfect student with masterful aplomb in a movie that never telegraphs its punches. We never know if the next scene will make us laugh or cringe.
Stearns, aided by Heather McIntosh's all-strings score shifting from light merriment to ominous dread, murders male machismo, and boldly presents us with a graphic autopsy of a mythic ideal that, just an hour earlier, sure looked like something most men would aspire to.
Sadly, a few still might.
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Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Directed by: Riley Stearns
Other: A Bleeker Street release. Rated R for language, nudity, sexual situations, violence. 104 minutes