Jesse Eisenberg plays to his strengths in “The Art of Self-Defense,” a deadpan comedy about a weak, timid, ineffectual dweeb named Casey (that’s Eisenberg, obviously) who flirts with becoming an anger-fueled alpha male after getting mugged and beaten. Guiding him down that path is a meathead karate instructor known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who at first glance seems to follow the familiar ethical practices of karate but upon scrutiny is doing the opposite. The sweet spot, writer-director Riley Stearns suggests, is somewhere between Casey and Sensei, between being a doormat and being a doorknob.
Stearns uses highly amusing details to convey the depths of Casey’s pitifulness, like a slightly passive-aggressive answering machine voice (“You have only one message. No one else left you a message”) and the fact that he is described in the newspaper story about his mugging as nothing more than a “35-year-old dog owner.” That dog is a dachshund, by the way, which Sensei doesn’t feel is manly enough. Sensei has opinions about the masculinity of Casey’s name, too, and about whether women can earn the rank of black belt. The one female at his dojo, Anna (Imogen Poots), seems qualified, but Sensei eventually explains the problem: “Her being a woman will prevent her from becoming a man.” You see his dilemma.
This satire of modern masculinity benefits from Stearns’ stone-faced sensibilities. Everyone speaks matter-of-factly, even when expressing absurd or dangerous sentiments, so there’s a uniformity in tone. The homoeroticism of the dojo is glanced at but not commented upon, which is itself a sly comment, and Eisenberg is quite funny as a rabbity beta male — even more so when Casey lets loose his inner macho pig and finds he’s ill suited for it. In addition to Sensei’s Tyler Durden-esque knack for encouraging destructive behavior, the film has a few other things in common with “Fight Club,” including a morbid sense of humor and a willingness to shock viewers. I suspect it will also be misunderstood by some male viewers who take the wrong lessons from it, but that’s not the movie’s fault.
B (1 hr., 44 min.; )