Riley Stearns’s movie about an accountant who takes up karate after being mugged is a little too on-the-nose
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE (Riley Stearns). 105 minutes. Opens Friday (July 19). See listing. Rating: NNN
Writer/director Riley Stearns made his debut with the feature film Faults, an off-centre drama about a deprogrammer (Leland Orser) trying to break a particularly resistant cult member (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). There was a little more to it than that, which was the fun of it the movie wriggled in your head like an eel as you watched it, shifting perspectives and seeming to change its nature from one moment to the next.
Stearns’s new film, The Art Of Self-Defense, operates in similar territory it’s also a story about a person who joins an organization that demands unquestioning allegiance to its maxims, and what that experience does to that person’s sense of self. But it’s pitched as a bone-dry, stylized comedy, and that might not be the best way to play this story.
Jesse Eisenberg is Casey, a meek Los Angeles accountant who’s mugged and beaten half to death by a motorcycle gang resolving never to feel weak or helpless again, he joins a dojo to learn karate, and promptly falls under the sway of its charismatic sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who takes Casey under his wing despite the clear disapproval of the dojo’s other instructor (Imogen Poots).
Hostilities simmer, and that’s before we start listening to Sensei’s monologues about power and strength and training one’s feet to punch harder than one’s fists. It’s all a little on-the-nose, but that’s intentional: the precision of the dialogue and the sharpness of the editing turn everyone into types rather than individuals, which has a way of muting the emotional impact of key beats and turning them into almost theoretical points.
This may well be Stearns’s goal, since the subtext of his film has more than a few echoes of Fight Club – including the time period in which it’s set – but Eisenberg’s live-wire presence seems to push back against it. The actor can’t really flatten out his nervous energy, instead channeling it into a constant, squirmy discomfort with the world around him, and a need for acceptance that hardens into a cruel, selfish shell.
Casey’s transition from cringing functionary to confident asshole is compelling, but Stearns doesn’t give that journey any further texture or resonance, pushing the story toward an ironic climax that feels entirely unearned.
Say what you will about Faults, but it knew where it was going and it stuck the landing with force. The Art Of Self-Defense, by comparison, feels pretty lightweight.