'Art of Self-Defense' examines, satirizes toxic masculinity

LOS ANGELES - Director Riley Stearns says he didn't realize he was making a perfect movie for 2019 when he started writing "The Art of Self-Defense" four years ago.

But his darkly comedic riff on toxic masculinity starring Jesse Eisenberg as a timid and "weak" man who takes up karate just kept becoming more relevant. The Harvey Weinstein allegations broke during the shoot in 2017 and the #MeToo movement became a phenomenon.

"It was kind of weird that this idea that I had been feeling was very personal to me was really starting to spread into a direct discussion," Stearns said. "More and more people are relating to the film in ways that I originally wouldn't have intended, which is hugely humbling and very interesting to see."

"The Art of Self-Defense" is currently in 540 theaters nationwide, where it's finding a healthy audience amid all the flashier blockbusters and superhero films in the multiplex.

Eisenberg's character Casey Davies is mocked even for his "feminine" sounding name. After getting brutally beaten one night by horde of masked motorcyclists, he stumbles on a local dojo run by an over-the-top alpha played by Alessandro Nivola and signs up for classes. And things take an unexpectedly dark turn.

In "The Art of Self-Defense," Imogen Poots plays the film's sole main female character, an instructor at the dojo who despite all her skills has not been promoted to black belt. Courtesy of Bleecker Street

"There's an absurdity to him because he's timid in such an extreme way and aggressive in such an extreme way," Eisenberg said. "Casey is a product of this very unusual world. As much as I loved the character I also loved the world he exists in which is a world where people speak in this very unusual, blunt, earnest way."

Imogen Poots plays the film's sole main female character, an instructor at the dojo who despite all her skills has not been promoted to black belt. Sterns did this knowingly, but also made a concerted effort to make sure his below the line team was predominantly women.

"It's a film about men, starring men, written by a man. Everything about it was so overtly masculine, which I knew, I was making fun of it, but still at the end of the day was not going to be on the side of films passing the Bechdel Test," Stearns said. "My intent then was to say, let's find the best people for the job to take on these department head jobs but also really try to focus on finding the best women for the jobs as well, to really try to counteract that. I just knew I didn't want it to be a set full of men. It was really important for me to have that female perspective."

Jesse Eisenberg, left, stars with Alessandro Nivola in "The Art of Self-Defense." Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Both Stearns and Eisenberg see some of the changes happening in the industry as many wake up to the injustices women have been subject to for too long. Soon after filming "The Art of Self-Defense," Eisenberg found himself on the set of "The Hummingbird Project," with Salma Hayek and Erika Rosenbaum, who both allege Weinstein sexually harassed them.

He remembers that the day that Hayek was writing her New York Times op-ed on set about the alleged harassment, something else happened in another department.

"This guy on set made some misogynistic comment in the wardrobe department and was fired on the spot," Eisenberg set. "And I remember thinking, 'This is amazing. This day fully crystalizes the changes that are possible: Two women bravely telling their stories about a person with outsized power in our field and another guy having to be held accountable for something he did that was awful on set ... I just thought, if this is sustainable this is great."

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