The Art of Self Defense

Jul 21, 2019

Diappointing that it doesn't have the Jarmusch magic.

The Art of Self Defense

Grade: C+

Director: Riley Stearns (Faults)

Screenplay: Stearns

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Alessandro Nivola

Rating: R

Runtime: 1 hr 44 min

By: John DeSando

Writer/director Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self Defense has been called a “dark comedy.” Maybe it is, but with so much dark and so little comedy, it would be better thought of as a psycho study of male impotence. That it doesn’t have the light Jim Jarmusch touch as in The Dead Don’t Die, where dry comic “Bill-Murray” reactions rule the raged zombie terrain, highlights the art of understated humor absent from Stearns’ satire.

In today’s world of women’s ascendency into the macho sphere previously owned by men, Stearns has a serio-comic thriller in an indeterminate time with echoes of Fight Club and any men’s magazine that features gun ownership and boobs in the same issue. The Art of Self Defense is anything but about art; it is a dense, dark, melancholic cautionary tale of a 30-something milquetoast, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), who becomes a menace through the “art” of karate.

Besides the overly-long set up, this film has a challenge to strike the right balance between the dreary life of an introvert and the dangerous world of violence and misogyny, not dull but disquieting. The film is effective showing the almost exclusive male training in artful macho that discriminates against a woman (Anna, played by Imogen Poots) by stifling her ambition and relegating her to a boiler room for a locker room.

Casey embodies the wrong-headed notion that courage can come from a punch and a kick. As for an equalizing gun, it is not for the weak as the dojo’s rules claim. Casey will have his own take. His sensei (Alessandro Nivola) must face his pupil as avenging angel.

The Art of Self Defense is not for most regular film goers: It’s slow and unsure of its tone. For the discriminating audience, however, it offers a skewered perspective on the hobbling of timid spirits by substituting violence for sympathy and force for understanding.

In the hands of rank amateurs, the defense should be for themselves against themselves. Fight Club or Karate Kid this is not. Like them it is in its minimal humor. Dark comedy? not so much.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at