Movie review: Dark comedy 'Self-Defense' kicks toxic masculinity in the throat

Brad Keefe
"The Art of Self Defense"

While some movie poster blurbs from critics might tell you otherwise, there is, by definition, no such thing as an “instant cult-classic.”

But “The Art of Self-Defense” has all the hallmarks of a movie that will get there eventually — especially if you like your comedies dark, dry and with a deep undercurrent of social commentary.

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a mousy and socially awkward office worker who is beaten on the street by a roving gang of masked attackers.

The seemingly random act inspires Casey to purchase a handgun, but when he learns of the (gasp!) waiting period to buy a deadly firearm, he shifts his attention to a strip mall karate dojo.

Under the tutelage of the over-serious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), Casey will learn how to “punch with his feet and kick with his hands,” as well as learn how to make himself more masculine (which, of course, includes listening to heavy metal).

The dojo is a collection of wannabes, and a clear power structure plays out beneath Sensei,which includes the dojo’s lone advanced female student, Anna (Imogen Poots).

As Casey transforms himself from an awkward wimp into an awkward version of hyper-masculinity, he also discovers a darker side to the dojo.

Writer-director Riley Stearns’ second feature (after 2015’s “Faults”) is one of the unexpected gems of the summer for me. It’s sharp, weird and consistently funny. It’s also a winking takedown of modern ideals of masculinity.

One easy comparison is “Fight Club,” and it’s interesting to note that the message of that movie/book has been so misconstrued that it led to the ubiquitous “snowflake” insult.

But “Art of Self-Defense” wears its comedic roots on its sleeve, so there’s no confusion as to the message. When characters like Casey and Sensei are chest-puffing, we know the joke’s on them.

If you like your humor as dry as unbuttered toast, it’s also one of the funniest movies of the summer. Stearns adds violence as both punctuation and commentary.

Eisenberg is perfect in the lead role, playing off his own typecasting and making Casey’s general oddity and weighted male expectations come through.

Get in on the future cult hit now, and see this one in theaters.

“The Art of Self-Defense”

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4 stars out of 5