If sometimes like your comedies like you like your coffee, dark but refreshing, then THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE is one beverage that must be tried. Without giving anything away it has one of the funniest, darkest, bold, and unique climax’s of any comedy I have seen in quite sometime. Jesse Eisenberg completely shines in what is probably his best performance since The Social Network. I think it also makes up for Dawn of Justice. Be warned though, this film has some really dry and dark humor in it, and if you like your comedy all nice, cheery, and fluffy, this film is definitely not for you. Oh, and definitely not for animal lovers either. But what makes The Art of Self Defense really stand out, is that in a year filled with endless superhero film or franchise sequels, it is nice to get something as engaging while being totally original. It’s unfortunate it is getting a limited release this weekend and then an expansion next week, but I have a feeling it will gain some cult status down the line.
The film’s premise is simple. A weird, always nervous, weak accountant (Jesse Eisenberg) named Casey is mugged and beaten one night while he is on the way home getting his dog some dog food. His immediate reaction is to buy a gun but on his way home stumbles into a small (almost abandoned looking) building complex that holds day and night karate classes. The Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) takes a liking to him at once, trying to make him more masculine and turn him into the intimidating person that Casey wants to be. But within this dojo, filled with odd behavior and feisty tempers, something is lurking beneath the surface, and it is only a matter of time before Casey learns that not all is as it seems, and that these classes may be more than he bargained for.
That’s about all I’m going to say about the plot film, because to say literally anything else, ruins all the weird, hilarious, dark and fun surprises. And it all works thanks to the screenplay by writer/director Riley Steams, who has done one other film that I had never even heard of or seen. The whole movie, with a brisk pace of 104 minutes, holds no punches, and none of it is filler. If I had to compare it to any movies, I’d say take Napoleon Dynamite and have it make a baby with School For Scoundrels, except that this film is a whole lot better than those two combined, and a whole lot more sadistic. The movie is completely filled with dry and awkward humor, so if you’ve never been one to have an acquired taste for those kind of movies, this probably won’t break you into the fold.
The only thing keeping this film from being masterful is of some of predictability. Early on the film gives away a couple too many clues as to what is going on that I picked up on almost immediately, even without having watched a full trailer for this. Those scenes though are evened out by the unpredictability of other things, such as the balls to the wall funniest climax I have seen in quite some time. Even with some of the predictability, the movie has a bunch of set ups earlier in the film that pay off beautifully toward the end. The other reason why this movie work is the incredible acting from all those involved. Like I said above, Jesse Eisenberg hasn’t been this good since The Social Network. Alessandra Nivola as just named The Sensei (a brilliant end pay off as well) is masterful and Imogen Poots, while not a love interest, has an interesting character arc, as her being the only girl in the dojo, The Sensei thinking that girls are weak in general (the film has a lot to say under the surface about sexism).
Other little things like not knowing but getting little subtle clues on when exactly the film takes place make this film a nice treat for movie goers after the pretty sad sack of shit film month we had in June. It’s films like this that should be keeping the movie industry alive and original, but instead we are now just getting Disney Live Action remakes like the abysmal Aladdin and the not so well received Lion King, which hasn’t even come out yet. Films like this show that there is a lot of original talent out there begging for their voices to be heard. If you find a theater playing this, and this sounds like something right up your alley, go see it immediately. It’s good weird and it takes you places that these types of comedies normally don’t go. I have a feeling if we listened a little more often and Hollywood took a little more risk, we would stop complaining about un-originality and we wouldn’t have to defend ourselves by pointing at franchise films and saying, “but…but look at all the money that movie made!”