Review: The Art of Self-Defense
What a depressing year for film. If anyone can bring us around and out of this lull in quality then it’s most certainly going to be the efforts of one Jesse Eisenberg. His latest starring role in The Art of Self-Defense sees him tackle conventional culture stereotypes, learning karate and gaining confidence within himself and his abilities, while at the same time trying to uncover those responsible for the actions that led him to changing his life. It’s a dark comedy, or a light drama, who knows, director Riley Stearns certainly doesn’t as we’re led through one of the most disappointing films of the year.
Jesse Eisenberg plays more or less the same character he did in The Double, but this time the stilted dialogue and awkward disposition of his character doesn’t nearly have the same enjoyment or propensity to spark interest as it does in Ayoade’s Orwellian thriller. The Art of Self-Defense does enjoy his prominent abilities as an actor, but it feels like a lesser performance for him to delve into. Eisenberg is usually great, so it’s nice to see that he gets some strong moments scattered throughout the film, even if they are few and far between.
Even though the story to The Art of Self-Defense is unique, it still feels oddly cliché in how its characters interact with one another. Eisenberg’s leading performance as Casey provides us the odd up and comer who manages to needle his way into the inner circle of karate just in time for the plot to pick up. Its pandering shots are just enough to keep the audience fixated on obvious plot details that may be needed for further expression or events later down the line. Aside from a few humorous scenes, most of what director Riley Stearns has to offer is pretty basic and to the letter of what makes up your average film.
The Art of Self-Defense looks to delve into the issues that toxic masculinity brings to the workplace, but it comes off as funnier rather than effectively political. Its message becomes too heavy handed, and however hilarious its twists and turns are, they’re not intended to be that way. Stearns holds our hand through the running time, with his message or aim being too on the nose to be enjoyable, getting in the way of what could’ve been some very nice character development. Instead of that, we get the usual rigamorle, his direction becomes predictable in ways that try to hold our hand in what to focus on and what we should be thinking.
A nice 80s atmosphere is presented to us without really ever being mentioned, and Stearns flourishes in his environment. He may manage to present some nice sets, but he struggles to tie his story into anything meaningful, the consistent twists and darker meanings of The Art of Self-Defense prove increasingly futile as the running time dwindles away. Predictable, on the nose and hand holding storytelling devices strive to ruin some intriguing performances from a cast of talented individuals. Feeling more like an uncoordinated misfire than anything else, at least The Art of Self-Defense feels like a small piece of fun, it’s just upsetting that it has so much squandered potential.