“The Art of Self Defense” Review

Photo credit: Bleecker Street

In a summer movie season full of disappointments, The Art of Self Defense came out of nowhere and karate kicked me in the stomach.

The plot here is simple: Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, a fragile and insecure accountant who signs up for karate classes in an attempt to prove himself as a man. Where Casey’s character arc goes from here isn’t terribly surprising, but it’s an absolute joy to watch it play out over the course of the movie due to razor-sharp writing and tremendous performances. This role was practically born for Eisenberg, as he provides his trademark awkward stature in a much more subdued and comedic environment than he’s ever been allowed to. But who really steals the show here is Alessandro Nivolla as the Sensei of the karate class, who delivers monologues with tinges of deadpan humor as if it’s second nature for him as an actor.

This is a pitch-black comedy that only gets funnier and darker as the movie progresses. Comparisons to Fight Club have rightfully been made (the movie even jokes about it in a self-aware manner), but The Art of Self Defense more than manages to craft its own voice, mostly due to the fact that it’s not as strictly psychological as Fincher’s masterpiece. However, the movie does take the satire a bit too far in its last 20 minutes, nearly becoming a Hollywood Screenplay™ that comes dangerously close to jumping the shark in its absurdity and need to give us definitive answers to questions the audience can solve on its own. But still, none of this is enough to severely hinder my enjoyment of the movie overall. 

The Art of Self Defense earns a black belt for two things: for simply being an effective, engaging piece of storytelling, and for being the movie that saved me from my withdrawal of great 2019 movies.

“The Art of Self Defense” is Ben Watches Things Approved

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