‘The Art of Self-Defense’ Review: Jesse Eisenberg Heads to the Dojo in This Dark, Thoughtful Comedy [SXSW]
Posted on Wednesday, March 13th, 2019 by Meredith Borders
“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.