By Kenny Hedges
“Everything should be as masculine as possible,” the Sensei of a Dojo (Alessandro Nivola) mentors his young protege Casey (Jessie Eisenberg). And he means it. Music? Metal. Dog? Someething German. He even accuses the young man who describes his musical taste as “adult contemporary” as having a femine name.
Everywhere he goes, the meek Casey is assaulted by toxic masulinity. His co-workers talk about their favourite sex acts and read a magazine with the symbol for “male” on the cover. The television only runs movies full of machismo and weaponry. Even the news suggests that one defend themselves against a roving gang of motorcycle thieves by walking around with “a gun or a very large knife.”
It isn’t long before Casey falls victim to said thieves, and as a direct result, he turns to the dojo to learn self defense. But it becomes clear that the only way Casey can defend himself is to buy into being a man.
The Art of Self-Defense is writer/director Riley Stearns’ second feature (the first, Faults, is an equally amusing-if-flawed debut). Two films in, he’s already developed a clear thematic interest in manipulation and denial. The way the Sensei toys with and dupes his pupils is clear to the audience, but not the students.
Equally obvious – though unspoken – is how the dojo operates much like the military. They have ranks, promotions, an emphasis on masculinity and strenghth and, like the military, females are devalued. In fact, the only female in the room (Imogen Poots) keeps getting passed over for promotion and has a changing rooms, “like the men’s but not as nice.” She’s not outright used for sex, but the implications are there.
Eisenberg is at his best in those Woody Allen surrogate roles he’s known for; just nuerotic, but never feeling like an imitation. And he’s particularly good here, telegraphing the tough guy image he eventually adopts robotically and without conviction while the earnest ones ring completely sincere.
Unfortunately, Stearns resorts to an obvious if unbelievable twist in the last act that doesn’t quite come out of nowhere, but feels like it’s from a different movie. It jettisons the carefully built manipulation for goofy shock value.
Up until that point however, it’s a funny, insightful look at toxic masculinity; how it can affect either gender in hurtful and outright foolish ways.
Agree, disagree or just want to yell at me? Follow us on facebook here!