This film was not screened for critics in the Las Vegas Valley.
The Art of Self-Defense (hereafter simply referred to as “Self-Defense”) is directed by Riley Stearns. It stars Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots.
Mild-mannered Casey is a 35-year-old accountant who lives alone at home with his pet dachshund. He doesn’t fit in at work, and is beaten senseless by muggers when walking home from the store at night. Feeling helpless, Casey considers purchasing a gun, but ultimately opts for karate training instead, taking lessons from a strict master, but becoming a model student quickly, becoming more confident in the process. But will Casey’s newfound confidence go to his head, and is there more to things than meets the eye at first?
Prior to seeing this movie, I knew next to nothing about it, and as far as cast and crew go, was only familiar with Jesse Eisenberg, for his role in the DCEU as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg is definitely the best thing about this movie; his portrayal of a meek accountant turned martial arts student is both funny and relatable. Unfortunately, after the first act, the movie comes crashing down, turning into something needlessly dark, creepy, violent, sexist, and just plain disturbing. As much as I like Eisenberg’s performance, other elements in the film don’t fare nearly as well.
If nothing else, Jesse Eisenberg steals the show here. We see a part of ourselves in this character, yet also find him to be quite funny and entertaining. Had the filmmakers stuck to the basic premise here rather than going off on a tangent and throwing in every ridiculous thing but the kitchen sink, odds are this could’ve been my favorite film starring Eisenberg so far.
Unfortunately, for reasons that are no fault of his, that doesn’t happen.
Alessandro Nivola’s sensei character starts out entertaining enough, but by the time this movie ends, he’s managed to make John Kreese, the Cobra Kai sensei from The Karate Kid, look like Mother Teresa by comparison. What starts out as a lighthearted comedy-drama of sorts becomes one of the most violent, disturbing, creepy, sexist, and all-around mean-spirited films of recent years. There are times where I had to remind myself what movie I was watching, as I struggled to connect it all.
I know the film is Rated R and involves both karate and mugging/violent crimes. Yet this film cranks the violence up to 11 in a production which absolutely did not need it. I don’t know what’s worse; the fact we have a karate master who does terrible things and students who follow his teachings despite it, or that the students don’t simply walk away. Truthfully, I have no idea whether this movie was trying to condemn toxic masculinity or celebrate it. It seems to do both just about equally.
It’s hard to cite specific examples of what’s wrong with Self-Defense, as the movie has many problems, but discussing many of them is impossible without giving spoilers. It takes a lot to offend me and gross me out considering some of the movies I’ve been to, but this one takes the cake. The curious may be interested in Eisenberg’s performance, but it doesn’t stay a lighthearted comedy-drama for long, descending into disturbing depths which are truly in bad taste.
Rating: One-and-a-a half stars out of four.
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