The Art of Self Defense

I wasn't really sure what to expect from The Art of Self Defense. It's billed as a comedy, and the presence of Jesse Eisenberg suggests something, but it's difficult to say what.

I am almost ashamed to admit that in my mind Eisenberg is always "not quite Michael Cera" if that makes any sense.

Eisenberg plays Casey, a mild-mannered accountant who lives alone with his dog. The dog is a dachshund,  which is maybe meant to say something about the sort of guy Casey is. He's timid in the extreme; bullied by co-workers and fearful of everyone.

One night while out to buy food for his little dog he is mugged and badly beaten. He decides that he needs something for self defense, so he goes to buy a gun. This leads to the funniest scene in the film. Davey Johnson delivers a performance as the gun shop clerk that is flatly hilarious. His deadpan delivery while reciting a litany of dangers associated with gun ownership had me giggling throughout.

Casey decides to pass on the gun when he discovers a Karate class led by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and Anna (Imogen Poots). He is quickly drawn into a strange, twisted world of misogyny and violence that escalates with each day.

Casey finds himself invited to join the special night classes that Sensei hosts. These classes lead to a deeper understanding of what the group is up to.  As things progress, Casey finds himself changing in ways that at he first takes as improvements, but with eventually understand as ruin.

Imogen Poots is a real standout in the cast. She finds the perfect tone for the put upon woman being overlooked due to her gender. She also manages a series undercurrent of menace that bubbles to the surface in a scene where she beats an unconscious man unrecognizable. This scene very much mirrors the "I wanted to destroy something beautiful" scene in Fight Club (I will have more to say about this film and Fight Club shortly).

There's a revenge aspect to the plot, and a bit of a mystery built in. It's all very offbeat and strange in a way that's hard to nail down. The universe of this film is real world adjacent at best.

Watching The Art of Self Defense, I wanted to draw comparisons with Fight Club, and not just the beating scene mentioned above. . The two film are occupying a similar space - both are very much about the dangers of toxic masculinity. Both want to say something about cults of personality. Both films are very funny.  Art is, however, less subtle than Fight Club (don't @me - yes, Fight Club is subtle in its satire, that's why Nazis misunderstand it and think that Tyler Durden is the fucking hero). Art doesn't want to be just a satire. It wants to be something more gentle, sweeter. It certainly works as the first, but maybe not the later.