Did you know there’s a remake of The Lion King out right now? Did you know it sucks and shouldn’t exist? Did you know there were other movies that came out over the last two weeks that you could’ve watched instead? Well, fear not, for your intrepid small-time blogger offers an alternative to Disney’s unceasing parade of uninspired remakes. Written and directed by Riley Stearns and starring Jesse Eisneberg, The Art of Self-Defense is an often hilarious satire of masculinity that offers prime entertainment that actually has some live-action animals in it!
Eisenberg leads the proceedings as Casey Davies, a meek, passive young accountant in what appears to be the 1990s (no official date is stated, but the props paint a mid-to-late 90s motif). After he is verbally abused by the “alpha” males at his office, he decides to take steps to become more “manly.” His resolve is further hardened when he’s mugged in the streets by a motorcycle gang and beaten nearly to death. He at first attempts to buy a gun, but during the waiting period he passes by a karate dojo, and observes a class taught by the establishment’s Sensei (Alessandro Nivola of Disobedience).
Taken in by the combination of the Sensei’s assertive strength and empathetic leadership style, Casey joins the dojo. He befriends the lone woman in the studio, Anna (Imogen Poots of Green Room), and quickly rises to the rank of yellow belt. His devotion to the martial art, as well as the behavioral changes it inspires, ingratiates Casey to the Sensei, who invites him to work at the dojo and to attend the much more intense night class, making him the first student of low belt rank to earn the privilege.
After a quick turn-around improvement in Casey’s life, things become more sinister, as he discovers the Sensei’s secrets, and loving aggression turns into graphic violence, all in the name of being more masculine and taking control of one’s life. Casey is then faced with the dilemma of how to handle the increasingly dark and dangerous events unfolding around him.
If this sounds a lot like the plot of Fight Club to you, congratulations! You get a cookie. The parallels between this film and David Fincher’s masterpiece of 20 years ago are palpable on the surface, but there are enough significant differences that the film never feels like a straight-up ripoff. For one, there’s no mental psychosis going on. The Sensei is real, not an imagined Tyler Durden avatar for Casey’s masculine ideal. Second, the relationship between Casey and Anna is purely platonic (at least for the purposes of the story; I’m sure it wouldn’t be out of character for Casey to find her attractive), and she’s nothing like Marla Singer. She’s cynical, but not in a mean way, and she asserts her rank and authority over Casey while still being sympathetic to his plight.
Most importantly, though, Fight Club was very much an action-intensive dark dramatic satire that had some decent jokes thrown in. The Art of Self-Defense, however, is much lighter overall, and is decidedly a comedic satire that uses violence and martial arts as a lens, a conduit to channel the extremes of what is considered masculinity, rather than just relying on the action sequences. Most of the “fights” in this film are reduced to slow-motion montages, as opposed to Fight Club‘s more high-octane bouts.
The comedy is first rate, anchored by a script that is deliberately stilted and obtuse, much like the dialogue in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Very little emotion is put behind the line readings, which makes the delivery all the more hilarious when Eisenberg occasionally does lift the volume of his voice beyond monotone. The inciting incident of the film – his mugging – comes because he’s run out of kibbles for his pet dachshund. He stands still in the kitchen, holding an empty bag of dog food, and tells his friend something to the effect of, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know we were out of dog food. I will go buy you some more.” After gaining confidence at work, he confronts the alphas and brags about punching his boss. “I didn’t talk about it. I did it. I punched our boss in the throat. It was exhilarating. Let’s do push-ups.” Facing his enemy at long last, he looks straight at the camera and says, “I want to kill you. It is because I hate you.” Nivola and Poots have similar moments (Nivola explaining the death of the dojo’s Grand Master is a genius touch of minimalist absurdity), but Eisenberg has the biggest chunk of them, and he’s an absolute delight. It’s almost like they took the literal translations of Asian martial arts movie dialogue and said the lines straight, much like the comically over-the-top dubs from the last century.
The intentionally dry humor plays well with the color palette of the film, filled with drab, washed out backgrounds and walls, with the exception of the karate belts, which are the only true status symbol in the entire film, regardless of one’s personal version of manhood. It gets even better when Casey buys leather belts in multiple colors for everyone at the dojo, including black and brown belts (otherwise known as just standard belts).
I found myself surprisingly drawn in as the dynamics of the film shifted as well. I took a semester of karate in college, and my sensei was a lot like Nivola’s character, at least the first version of him we see. And there is a sense of pride that comes with belt promotion (full disclosure, I did not advance in my class because I literally could not afford to buy the belt; I was broke as fuck in college). I was prepared for this to just be a funny white boy karate movie. But Stearns uses that sense of familiarity to bait the hook, so that when things do get turned on their proverbial ear, you’re left grasping at straws to find those relatable moments as a means to anchor yourself back into some sense of normalcy. For some, this may prove frustrating. For me, it just made me that much more invested in the outcomes.
So please, do yourself a favor and see this movie, especially if you’re desperate for some alternative to Beyoncé as a CGI lion. There are actual dogs in this movie, so it’s way more live-action than whatever Disney lies to you about. And I’ll bet dollars to donuts this is funnier than Seth Rogen as a warthog.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are we at the beginning of a new golden age of satire? Would you ever actually wear a yellow belt to hold up your pants? Let me know!