Although broad-brush social satire has found a place on premium cable, it’s still relatively rare in American movies, so the temptation is strong to overpraise Riley Stearns’s anti-macho black comedy The Art of Self-Defense for barreling past realism and onto a violent, cartoonlike plane of its own. I’ll resist that temptation, sorry. Parts of the film do land — they’re cringeworthy in a good way, with homoeroticism bleeding (literally) into violence. In the ham-handed role of a karate instructor (he goes by the moniker “Sensei”) who regards his black belt as a license to maim, Alessandro Nivola holds his features in check, so that his every sudden, sadistic move is a surprise. You know he’s going to do something bad (the script telegraphs it like mad) but not precisely when. The rest of the film is hysterical in a not-good way.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Casey, the nervous dweeb who’s mugged late at night on his way to buy dog food, after which (following a hospital stint) he stumbles onto Sensei’s karate school and decides to change the way he seizes the space. He wants people to fear him. He says when he looks in the mirror he wants to fear himself, which is a good line because it promises he’ll be estranged from himself no matter what he does. There’s a nice, Charlie Kaufman–like masochistic joke: Casey’s answering machine says, “You have only one message.” But Eisenberg makes the unusually bad choice (does he think it’s a mark of integrity?) of adding tics and stammers and grimaces to a part that’s already too too. He uses his high, strangled head voice and walks at a tilt, his twig arms seeming to swing of their own accord. You don’t care if Casey masters his environment because either way you wouldn’t want to spend time with him.
What’s especially disturbing about Casey’s mugging is that it’s not just violent but positively gleeful, executed by a group of helmeted motorcyclists who egg one another on to hurt him. The karate school seems like an extension of that. It’s a universe of predators where the most accomplished bullies go at night and spill one another’s blood. Given that karate is often viewed as a higher form of self-defense (the attacker’s energy is used against him or her), Nivola’s warmongering Sensei seems lousy at what he does. He taunts Casey for having a “very feminine sounding name.” He refuses to grant the class’s only woman, Anna (Imogen Poots), a black belt on the grounds that women are inferior and incapable of attaining the highest level of aggression. (She tries to show him that he’s wrong by mashing the face of the latest black belt.) Maybe if Sensei’s worldview had been seductive instead of backward and repellent, The Art of Self Defense wouldn’t have been so tedious. Why satirize something that has no stature to begin with?
The only surprise is the level of violence — not just beyond The Karate Kid but beyond Fight Club. The problem with that strategy is that unless you’re knocked out, you’re just grossed out and eager to go. You practice the art of self-defense against the movie.