Fans of martial arts dramas will probably want to catch The Art of Self-Defense, now showing on Hulu. This quirky indie film stars Jessie Eisenberg as Casey, a meek accountant who learns Karate after getting mugged.
Jesse Eisenberg has one of the most varied resumes in Hollywood. He alternately stars in mainstream films such as The Social Network, high-profile indie films such as The Squid and the Whale and seriously offbeat indie efforts such as Free Samples and, more recently, The Art of Self-Defense.
The rather generically-named The Art of Self-Defense, written and directed by Riley Stearns, is sort of like a twisted version of The Karate Kid, with perhaps some Fight Club thrown in. It’s a bizarre and uneven mix of comedy, violence, and just plain darkness.
The premise of a wimpy protagonist learning martial arts is hardly new. Casey (Eisenberg) is, of course, not a kid or teen but a guy in his mid-thirties who, nonetheless, finds himself bullied wherever he goes. This culminates in a vicious assault that winds him in the hospital. After shopping for a gun, Casey wanders into a local dojo and is drawn into the warped world of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), an intense instructor who makes The Karate Kid’s Sensei Kreese (who’s still menacing Daniel LaRusso and California’s dojos in the recent YouTube series Cobra Kai, btw) seem like a pacifist by comparison.
I won’t recount the entire plot of The Art of Self-Defense as this would inevitably contain spoilers. Suffice it to say that Casey undergoes a transformation from a meek and frightened victim to a belligerent (and rather unhinged) tough guy who takes no $hit. Sensei (who only has that title, no name) is a strange character who mixes typical martial arts traditionalism with large doses of sadism, misogyny, and, eventually, outright insanity.
There’s no real message to The Art of Self-Defense and it’s a hard film to categorize. To me, it has a pessimistic and nihilistic soul. It could be called a satire of martial arts except that few martial artists embody quite the oddball mixture of traits practiced by Sensei. One of the sub-themes involves sexism as the dojo’s female instructor Anna (Imogen Poots) is treated unfairly and never promoted to black belt. This theme, however, doesn’t quite mesh with the obvious fact that Sensei and his entire dojo are basically nuts. In effect, Anna is being discriminated against by a death cult. Why doesn’t she just quit and find a more normal place to train?
The Art of Self-Defense is an interesting, mostly engaging but ultimately unsatisfying dark comedy/drama that plays with several serious issues without offering much depth or consistency on any of them. It’s about vengeance, the violence underlying modern society, the nature of martial arts and male-dominated clubs in general, and the dangers of blindly following authority. By the end, many things have changed but no one has necessarily learned anything.