When the lights went up after The Art of Self-Defense, I turned to an exiting stranger in the next row and ask “What the hell kind of movie did we just watch?” We shared the bewildered laughter of comrades-in-arms. Yet to to write the film off as hard-to-classify seems lazy.
For the first forty minutes, I had Self-Defense pegged as a darkly comic parable decrying toxic machismo. Jesse Eisenberg’s Casey is a gawky milquetoast, another spine lost to the corporate cubicle. But after a brutal mugging, he resolves to assert his manhood. First, he makes a farcical attempt to buy a handgun. But it’s a fateful walk into a martial arts studio that upends his life.
The dojo’s eerie-calm Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) remakes Casey a “real man.” Emboldened by his promotion to yellow belt, the timid accountant affects a boorish swagger that would render most other actors unsympathetic (I’m looking at you, Tobey Maguire). Yet, even when bullying co-workers or punching his boss, long takes and the absence of background music help Eisenberg remain endearingly awkward.
Casey follows the Sensei into increasingly sinister behavior and mystery. Yes, the script is still pock-marked with droll lines and uncomfortable situations, but the narrative swivels from fable to absurdism. Anything can happen. No connection is too coincidental. And the strutting brawn lampooned in the movie’s first half? Apparently, testosterone is actually a problem solver – as cinema’s cowboys, soldiers, and gladiators, have known for decades.
Apparently, male violence rights wrongs so utterly, that Self-Defense ends as a fairy tale. Only a little more imaginative than “happily ever after,” Casey’s actions don’t resonate with consequence. That’s fine, obviously. Movies needn’t be real. Says so right in the credits: “The events depicted in this movie are fictitious. Any similarity to…” Nevertheless, even the most fanciful of mashups (the BromComRomZom Shaun of the Dead, as one example) benefit from consistent tone.