Hollywood’s Mark Zuckerberg Takes on Toxic Masculinity
In the black comedy ‘The Art of Self-Defense,’ Jesse Eisenberg stars as a man who, after being beaten to within an inch of his life, embraces a more ‘macho’ lifestyle.
To be a man, one must learn to punch with their feet and kick with their fists. Or, at least, so says karate dojo owner Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), whose absurd ethos of brutality is emblematic of The Art of Self-Defense, a ridiculously scathing satire that refuses to go easy on men’s warped notions about masculinity.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, this jet-black indie (in theaters July 12) stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey Davies, an urban accountant ostracized for being as girly as his (supposedly feminine) name. Living alone with his dachshund, Casey is a wimpy sort of loser, all meek, awkward lameness. He’s estranged from his coworkers, who read magazines about guns and boobs, and he can’t even bother to keep chow around for his beloved pet. That latter mistake compels him to venture out into the streets one night to procure more dog food, where he’s harassed by a gang of helmeted motorcycle thugs who ask him if he has a gun—and, when it’s clear that he does not, beat him to within an inch of his pitiful going-nowhere life.
Casey survives this assault, and—seemingly taking the advice of a radio news personality who, reporting on Casey’s attack, suggests that people arm themselves to the teeth—heads to the nearest gun store to procure a handgun, which the proprietor explains is likely to increase the chances of a deadly accident should Casey have a child at home (luckily, he does not). Moreover, the man behind the counter lets Casey know that people wielding guns in self-defense are more apt to be shot in an altercation than those that are not. Casey doesn’t care, though, because as embodied by Eisenberg with a seething rage lurking just beneath his docile exterior, he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
From its droll editorial cuts, to its underplayed performances, to its characters bluntly stating obvious and/or bizarre things, The Art of Self-Defense’s every gesture is deliberately mannered. Its affectations serve its comedy well, highlighting the unbridled lunacy of this vision of society as a hunt-or-be-hunted battlefield. And they only mount after Casey departs the gun store and finds himself drawn to the nearby dojo of Sensei, who rules with an iron fist and a strict set of rules—including “Guns are for the weak”—and whose confidence and aura of strength immediately strike a chord in Casey. When, during a free trial class, Casey withstands a classmate’s punch with his feet, he decides that karate is the key to macho power, and to becoming the very thing he most fears. To him, it’s an inviting cult that sells empowerment through brutality—exactly what he craves in the wake of the humiliating thrashing he suffered.
The Art of Self-Defense is a portrait of Casey’s path from fragile to toxic masculinity, and Eisenberg embodies that trajectory with a rigorous straightfaced intensity that’s far removed from much of his best work. Though the actor is no stranger to playing noxious me-first creeps—most memorably as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network, a turn he’d later refashion in comic-book terms in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—Eisenberg has rarely been this muted, which isn’t to say he’s passive. Rather, his Casey is an outcast who, guided by Sensei’s bonkers teachings, is in a state of transition from one pitiful extreme to the next, flailing about in search of self-definition and purpose. What he finds, at least at first, is anything but healthy.
Entranced by the color-coded belts that denote ability and rank—and thus suggest that upward mobility and improvement are possible in this masculine environment—Casey soon proves a fixture at Sensei’s dojo, which is also attended by Anna (Imogen Poots), who manages children’s classes and is the owner of a brown belt, which is one step below the coveted black belt. Recognizing that he has a willing acolyte in his midst, Sensei takes to Casey. What that means, in The Art of Self-Defense’s comedic universe, is that Sensei schools Casey in Dude 101, which entails ditching adult contemporary music for heavy metal, and dropping French as a second language (and dreams of visiting France) for German. Before long, Casey is punching out his boss while looking at boobs on his computer and earning an accounting gig at the dojo. Furthermore, he’s receiving an invitation to attend Sensei’s sought-after night classes, where he learns that truly becoming an all-caps MAN requires a whole new level of viciousness.
Homoeroticism, sexism, duplicity and blackmailing treachery all factor into The Art of Self-Defense’s scornful stew, as writer/director Stearns goes all the way in his mockery of aggro male hostility. Sensei preaches transcendent rebirth through violence, but as the film reveals in its later passages, his principles are merely window dressing for cruelty as an end unto itself. As hilariously embodied by Nivola with a weirdo Zen-sociopath calm, Sensei is a martial-arts guru whose concept of masculinity involves Darwinian callousness gussied up with a healthy dose of wise-sage hot air. It’s no surprise that he eventually turns out to be the most repugnant person in The Art of Self-Defense, and Nivola sells him as a joke that’s only one step removed from reality, thereby emphasizing both his cartoonish idiocy (his every dumb pronouncement uttered like it was the height of profundity) and the scarily believable inhumanity of his thoughts and deeds.
As Casey becomes spellbound with the potential benefits of dude-bro belligerence, The Art of Self-Defense finds it tougher to mask its third-act bombshells. Even so, the sharp script performs an admirable tightrope walk between Will Ferrell/Danny McBride-style goofiness (see, for example, Sensei’s stories about his Grandmaster’s demise, and famous fatality maneuver) and take-no-prisoners social commentary delivered via instances of bracing ugliness. In the barely-fictionalized world imagined by Stearns’ off-kilter film, violence is transformative and corrupting in equal measure, no matter which sex, in the end, is perpetrating it—and if there’s a more enlightened third way, well, it still involves roundhouses that land with the force of karate kicks.