Jesse Eisenberg Learns 'The Art of Self-Defense' in a Brilliant Dark Comedy | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Jesse Eisenberg Learns 'The Art of Self-Defense' in a Brilliant Dark Comedy


The funniest that my job reviewing Stuber got last week was watching the interviews its stars gave days before its dismal opening. Kumail Nanjiani and Dave Bautista had been doing national press for months, but the early chat fests were different — full of praise for the project's creators and talk about how crazy hilarious everything had turned out.

Fast-forward to early July, and the pair had a new spiel. Toxic masculinity! Suddenly Stuber wasn't an action-comedy but a pithy comment on that scourge. By then, focus groups and test screenings had made it crystal clear that laughter wasn't going to play a big part in the Stuber experience. Hence the desperate PR pivot selling it as a message movie, which was as comical as things ever got. Skip the movie. Check out the media coverage.

I can't say how pervasive the craving for a comedy exploring toxic masculinity actually is. But I do know Trump culture has made one inevitable, and The Art of Self-Defense is the warped movie that this warped moment requires. Writer-director Riley Stearns (Faults) makes the breakthrough of the year with this absurdist romp through the fun house of the modern male psyche. It's the most assured and least predictable film I've seen in a dog's age.

Speaking of dogs — Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, a skittish bookkeeper whose life outside work consists of sitting on the couch watching TV with his dachshund. And feeding the sad-eyed fellow. And, early on, making a trip to the store for dog food he forgot to buy.

Walking to the market, Casey is approached by two figures on a motorcycle who inquire, "Do you have a gun?" His flummoxed response tells them everything they need to know. They screech into the night, only to return as he's almost home. A savage, meaningless beating ensues.

I honestly can't recall a script operating so cleverly on so many levels in so many tones simultaneously. As Casey embarks on possibly the most oblique journey of self-empowerment ever filmed — first filling out the paperwork for a gun, then taking karate lessons at a strip-mall dojo — subtle conceptual flourishes and ridiculously inventive dialogue permeate the proceedings. It's an astonishingly delicious concoction.

Imagine Yorgos Lanthimos in a film fusion with Charlie Kaufman. Add a dash of Wes Anderson's whimsy and season with a touch of Jim Jarmusch at his most understated, and you'll have a notion of how delectably outré this gets.

Alessandro Nivola costars as the dojo's owner, a man of nonstop dadaist platitudes and bottomless self-confidence. He tells Casey to call him "Sensei" and offers to make a man out of him. This process is one of the most playfully unhinged creations in recent memory.

Buckle up. One minute, Sensei seems sincere and sane ("Guns are for the weak"). The next, he's demanding his student make everything "as masculine as possible" and listen only to metal ("It's the toughest music").

Almost every line is out of left field; for 104 minutes, Stearns never runs out of gas. Or ideas. Eisenberg could have been lab-engineered for the role.

The young filmmaker nails the pathos as well as the pathology inherent in navigating often-confusing and contradictory societal waters. Along the way, Casey's belt changes colors, but the brutes around him seldom do. Luckily, a female fighter enters the picture. Eventually it dawns on Casey that maybe the best place for him isn't a man's world after all.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Art of Self-Defense"