‘The Art of Self-Defense’ Hits the Sweet Spot (FILM REVIEW)

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Toxic masculinity is a phrase that gets thrown about a lot these days, leaving many to thrash and flail without considering what the words might actually mean. It’s simple, really. One of the rules I try to live by is don’t be a dick. For some, dickishness is such a part of their personality that the request to curtail their dickitude is seen as an affront to their entire being.

Truth is, popular culture often makes the mistake of portraying masculinity as being a dick, and so many men have internalized that message that, to them, it’s an indelible part of manhood. What then is manhood? Where is the dividing line between masculinity and toxic masculinity? These are the questions explored in the new film from writer-director Riley Stearns, The Art of Self-Defense.

Stearns has crafted a film so wry and so dark that it will be difficult for some people to enjoy. The Art of Self-Defense admittedly asks a lot of its audience, and it will be too much for many. For those that can get on the film’s wavelength, however, it is as bitterly funny as dark comedy can get. While the comedy is so dry that it threatens dehydration, Stearns deftly uses his satiric chomp to bite hard into the concept of toxic masculinity.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey, a mild-mannered milquetoast who is ruthlessly beaten almost to death one night while going to the store. Now afraid to leave his house, he signs up for a karate class led by an enigmatic man who goes simply by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Though at first he finds himself regaining the confidence to join the world, he is led down a dark path by Sensei’s teachings which threatens his relationships and his interactions with the world around.

While the film begins as sort of a wry, hipster, The Karate Kid, it abruptly changes into a wry, hipster Fight Club with almost little warning. Anchoring it all, of course, is Eisenberg, who plays an exaggerated version of the awkward social misfit he’s known for. Here, he’s like Zuckerberg without the drive or intelligence. He’s speech is stilted and his gait is trepidatious and he can barely look his co-workers in the eye. While certainly not far from any number of characters Eisenberg has played before, with Stearns at the helm, the actor goes to some fascinating new places.

The longer The Art of Self-Defense goes on, the more deliciously twisted the film gets. Though Stearns certainly takes us down some of the darkest paths, he maintains a heightened level of dry wit and hilarity from beginning to end. Throughout it all, however, he forces us to confront what it means to be a man and what terrible outcomes toxic masculinity can induce. It’s sometimes a touch on the nose, but the bitter humor of the film is impossible to look away from.

Though certainly not for everyone, The Art of Self-Defense is one of the most surprisingly delightful films of the summer. Full of sick humor and thought-provoking observations, it’s a film that largely meets the heights of its personal expectations. It also offers a poignant critique of toxic masculinity that never fails to challenge what you might think or believe.

The Art of Self-Defense is now playing in select theaters.

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