SXSW Movie Review: ‘The Art Of Self-Defense’ Has Lots To Enjoy

Review by Preston Barta

Rated R, 104 minutes.
Director: Riley Stearns
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner and Leland Orser

AUSTIN – There’s a moment in Riley Stearns’ THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE when Jesse Eisenberg’s distressed character, Casey Davies, is walking down the street after leaving a grocery store to get some dog food for his German Daschund and overhears a group of bikers approaching him. He begins to run, dropping his dog’s food along the way, but the mysterious biker gang catches up with him and savagely beats him for no apparent reason other than to prey on the “weak.”

The scene made me reflect on my youth, when I got into fights with my baseball teammates or when my coach would test my emotions to see if I could store them away like “a man is supposed to do.” They would yell, “Get over it” or “Stop being a sissy.”

As a young man who wrestled with the idea of what does it mean to be a man, Stearns’ new film hits home and also left me in stitches. It’s an exceptionally crafted film that uses a universal truth and builds a darkly funny film around it. I found myself laughing from start to finish while also deeply identifying with Eisenberg’s Casey.

In the film, Casey decides to restore his dignity by enlisting in a local dojo run by the enigmatic Sensei (a terrific Alessandro Nivola). This isn’t an immediately intense kind of sensei like Martin Kove’s ex-special forces instructor from the original KARATE KID. Instead, Nivola uses his manipulative ways to lure people in like a Venus flytrap. He tells his class to “be as masculine as possible” and listen to death metal. His philosophy certainly captures the interest of Casey, who completely envelops it and embraces it to hilarious levels.

Casey climbs his way up the ladder, eventually earning himself a yellow belt. He becomes so proud that he creates a yellow leather belt so he can wear it all the time. It gives him confidence and makes him feel tough, as seen in one sequence when Casey decides to stand up against his accounting boss and deadbeat work colleagues who never turn down the chance to make him feel awkward as he makes his morning coffee in the break room.

In any other film, all these scenes would focus strictly on the dramatic side. While THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE has its real moments – whether it’s a character like Imogen Poots’ Anna trying to prove that she worth more than her brown-belt status, or Casey trying to defuse a confrontation he has with a man who dinged his car door in a parking lot – bursts of comedy sneak up on the audience. It feels wrong to laugh at them, but you can’t help it when its lines are delivered in such a matter-of-fact way. It brings to mind works such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ THE LOBSTER or Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE. You won’t be able to control yourself because everyone delivers it’s as straight as possible.

THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE throws all the right punches and has just about everything you could want from a film experience. It’s unpredictable, offbeat and laugh-out-loud funny. But its most impressive facet is what’s written between the lines. It manages to explore the pressures society puts on us as well as the pressure we put on ourselves. There’s plenty to talk about and lots to enjoy. Take the plunge.

Grade: A-

THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE premiered at South by Southwest on March 10. Encore screenings on March 12 at 11 a.m. and March 15 at 7:45 p.m. For all ticket and screening information, visit Bleecker Street to release the film in theaters this summer.

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