'The Art Of Self-Defense' Review: Jesse Eisenberg Heads To The Dojo In This Dark, Thoughtful Comedy [SXSW]

"I want to be what intimidates me."

Riley Stearns (Faults) returns to SXSW with a super dark, incisive comedy that asks at what point in the process of toughening up and besting our bullies do we become precisely what we fear. The Art of Self-Defense follows Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a nervous little accountant who tiptoes through life trying not to offend anyone. He's the kind of unobjectionable wimp who passes his free time by listening to French lesson books on tape and jerking it to photocopied pictures of boobs (The Art of Self-Defense appears to be very low-key set in a pre-Internet and pre-Audible age, though it's never too showy about its period setting). But when Casey is randomly, brutally attacked by a group of motorcyclists, he takes up karate in order to feel safe and strong.

There are some impossible to ignore plot comparisons to Fight Club here: the dojo is led by an enigmatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and populated with worshipful men who hang onto his every word. Casey finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the culture of the dojo, irrevocably affecting every other aspect of his life. And then there's Imogen Poots' Anna, the dojo's one daunting woman, who represents Casey's inauguration, foil and redeemer in this macho new life.

And yes, like Fight Club, The Art of Self-Defense is about the draw and the downfall of prizing masculinity above all else, but it's both far less self-serious and less self-congratulatory than Fincher's film. Nivola's Sensei is outright hilarious, and Casey's dojo ascendancy is marked by such patently ridiculous lessons as "punch with your foot, kick with your fist." Eisenberg has this compelling formality to his performance, an almost robotic primness that lasts through his arc as a feeble office drone well into his transition to ass-kicking yellow belt. Eisenberg has never been better than in this role, playing Casey with a conflicting authenticity: he's pitiful and angry at once, sometimes desperate and sometimes strong. And maybe more significantly, Poots' Anna is accessible and human in a way that Fight Club's Marla never is (and I love Marla Singer, it should be said), a woman with her own aims and history that have nothing to do with Casey's journey.

The Art of Self-Defense skates such a tricky balance between important and absurd, meaningful and fun. The film has a lot to say but says it all in the weirdest, funniest, most surprising way possible. It's such a surprising movie, in fact, that it feels impossible to spoil or overhype, which is always a consideration with any festival fave. Everyone's been talking about The Art of Self-Defense at this festival, but it still had the capacity to shock my audience. There's just something fundamentally unexpected about Stearns' movie, an unpredictability baked into its very DNA, because it's born out of such a surprising and unexpected point of view. There's a sweetness – a goodness – here, hidden beneath The Art of Self-Defense's dark and almost dangerous hilarity. That makes for such an unlikely dichotomy that it provides The Art of Self-Defense with a staying power that a lot of these pitch-black indie comedies don't have. It's memorable because it's so manifestly different.

But for all of this talk about how special and significant The Art of Self-Defense is, I don't want to detract from how fully hilarious it is, too. It's just so, so damn funny – every line, every delivery, every bizarre plot point. With everything else a comedy can or should be, it most importantly must be funny, and The Art of Self-Defense is, without question, very funny. It's just a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff, too.

/Film Rating: 10 out of 10