The world seems to hate Casey. His co-workers, random strangers, even the recorded message on his inbox treat him with dismissive contempt. In the opening scene of “The Art of Self-Defense,” he’s minding his own business in a coffee shop when a French couple at the next table start ruthlessly mocking him in French so he won’t understand what they’re saying.
In the next scene, Casey is in his car, listening to the final tape in his “Learning French” series.
That scene sets the deadpan, offbeat tone of “The Art of Self-Defense,” writer-director Riley Stearns' absurd and unsettling black comedy skewering toxic masculinity. The film punctuates dry, mannered dialogue with sudden moments of utter weirdness that sweep our legs out from under us and leave us on the mat.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the meek Casey as a frightened mouse, moving through the world physically hunched over, as if trying not to be spotted by predators. It doesn’t work. One night while walking home from the grocery store, he’s mugged by a group of helmeted thugs on motorcycles.
Shaken and distraught, Casey comes across a karate studio in his neighborhood and is determined to learn how to protect himself. Head teacher Anna (Imogen Poots) is weirdly hostile towards him, but the dojo’s charismatic master, known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) is inviting. He takes Casey under his wing, encouraging him and teaching him how to be more of a man.
Casey eagerly laps up the attention and the strange advice, which includes trading in his cute dachshund for a German shepherd. He becomes utterly obsessed with martial arts. When Casey earns his yellow belt, he starts buying only yellow food at the supermarket. Then he gets wind that Sensei holds a mysterious, invitation-only “night class” that nobody will talk about.
Comparisons to David Fincher’s “Fight Club” are almost inescapable, although the connection is pretty superficial. Stearns’ film exists in a world all its own. Casey’s universe is an anonymous landscape of browns and beiges, where everyone speaks in the stilted manner of an instructional video. (“I want a gun that will fit in my hand,” Casey tells a gun shop owner. “Sounds like you need a handgun,” is the response.) This is a movie that needs to be seen in a theater with an audience, if only to verify that other people are also laughing at the same strange things that you are.
The disaffected tone and wan color scheme lulls us into the movie’s rhythms, which are sometimes broken up by a moment of shocking violence, or a bizarre plot twist as Casey uncovers the secrets of the karate school. Stearns plays with our expectations, including the familiar martial arts movie trope of the student becoming the master, before suddenly spinning the movie off in a new direction.
The more seriously “Self-Defense” presents this ideal of what manliness looks like, the more ridiculous it seems. At one point, Casey stumbles across a Maxim-like men’s magazine that’s filled with pictures of guns, breasts and articles on how wolves make great pets for men. It’s silly, sure, but not that far removed from some of the men’s rights manifestos circulating on social media.
By heightening the contrast, making the ideas even more bizarre while de-saturating the rest of the film, “The Art of Self-Defense” couldn’t be more timely or relevant. But I wouldn’t expect martial arts studios to get much of a surge in membership afterwards.