Taking a look at our world today, there can be no doubt that “toxic masculinity” is a problem. This idea of clinging to bygone notions of what it means to “be a man” and defining oneself around those things causes problems. For his second feature film, “The art of Self-Defense” writer-director Riley Stearns takes a darkly comedic look at the issue and, while it is interesting, it is not always successful.
The cast is led by Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, a timid soul uncomfortable in his own skin. Although he may allegedly have some friends, Stearns, pointedly, does not show us any of them. The voice of his boss, Grant (Hauke Bahr), is on Casey’s answering machine, but it isn’t until Casey becomes someone entirely different that Grant actually makes an appearance in the film. But, that’s getting slightly ahead of the review and the story.
Casey is, in the simplest terms, the film’s comedic idea of what it means to be a man today – soft and timid and weak. After he is attacked by a roving gang of bikers, Casey joins the karate dojo of Alessandro Nivola’s Sensei. It is here that Casey finds strength and under Sensei’s watchful eye, Casey embraces the idea of “being a man.”
Quite clearly, Stearns’s goal is for the audience to see the ridiculousness of this entire ethos, and he is successful in this endeavor. Sensei is a fool, the pupils are fools, the people at Casey’s office who act boorishly are fools. “The art of Self-Defense” is an hour and 40 minutes of this idea being drilled into the head of the viewer.
This is not to say, however, that the movie is one note. Rather, the problem is that none of the other notes work in concert with main idea. Most basically, Stearns offers up Casey as a sad sack prior to his joining the dojo. By not showing Casey’s friends, by making it clear that he’s lonely, by telling the audience that he has dreams he will never fulfill, Stearns gives us a Casey who needs some sort of change in his life. Casey is a joke before the attack and a joke after, it’s just that the brand of humor has changed.
As a film about toxic masculinity, one might also assume that there would be a strong female character to provide some other sort of view. There is not. In fact, the only prominent part played by a woman is that of Anna (Imogen Poots). A brown belt in the dojo, Anna teaches the kids’ class and is more than worthy of being a black belt. She has to fight for every inch in this place that does not want her and suffer the repeated indignities that Sensei heaps upon her.
Through it all, Anna keeps coming back for more and the film is never quite comfortable with whether Anna subscribes to the theory that she is less than for being a woman or not. In varying circumstances she will either apologize for being a woman or prove herself more than equal to any of the men; she will hate being part of the dojo or dig herself in further. Just as with the character of Casey, Stearns is happy to do anything with Anna that might be funny in the moment or prove a point in the moment or advance the story in the moment.
Over and over again, “The art of Self-Defense” wants it both ways, and it is not just with the above examples either. This is a movie which is taking a stand against toxic masculinity but quite sincere when it is Casey who is absolutely required to help Anna succeed, and in a way which promotes that which the film is against.
Although it is undoubtedly funny at times and more than a little engaging, “The art of Self-Defense” is rather disquieting as well, and not necessarily in the ways intended. It is against something but offers no better alternative, essentially saying that being this sort of man is bad, but if you’re not this sort of man you will die alone. It says that treating women as inferior is wrong, but if you do they won’t leave, they’ll crave to be a part of the group even more, and they’ll still need your help to succeed. Some viewers of the movie will write off these deficits as merely jokes, but they don’t feel that way in the moment.
With some funny moments, a few obvious twists, and an off-kilter worldview, “The art of Self-Defense” is a fascinating movie, but at least as much for what it is saying as opposed to what it thinks it’s saying.
photo credit: Bleecker Street Media