“The Art Of Self-Defense” opens with Jesse Eisenberg sitting on his hands. As Casey, a thirty-five-year-old auditor, Eisenberg does his outlander-thing in a one-seater coffee booth. He listens to a couple talking about sex in French-which just happens to be his new language of choice. He returns to work to hear his colleagues talking about sex, and he photocopies images of female breasts from his boss’ porno magazine, and staples the pack for later use in the privacy of his home.
His dachshund greets him from a gramma-crocheted throw on the couch. Director Riley Stearns knows how to contrast Casey’s pet choice with an article of a man with a wolf as his companion.
The set-up has Casey walking alone at night to get dog food. A motorcycle gang of three stop and ask if he has a gun. When he says “no”, he is kicked to a pulp. We next see Casey in a hospital bed with one week of paid leave. The critical care ward means that he will have to use all his vacation time to recuperate. We have a loser in our midst. Eisenberg is good at playing wimps. As in “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004), Eisenberg has a plan to toughen up. Casey purchases a hand gun and enrolls in karate class.
Alessandro Nivola may be the reason to see this dark and violent comedy. Nivola is terrific as Sensei, the suave psycho who tells Casey that “macho” is the way. He is to become what he fears. It is here that the script turns very dark. One earns a red stripe for taking a life.
Animals and humans are killed, a disenfranchised blue-belt takes his own life, and henchmen still roam the streets to slaughter undercover policemen and unsuspecting bicyclists. A German Shepherd is trained to attack the face. Bodies are secretly cremated. Nivola is cult-like, yet dead-pan funny. He would rather be a black-mailer and a killer than a guy named Leslie, his given name. My favorite part may be the end, where we see the dachshund’s picture framed next to the grand master’s. A bow to the bow-wow if ever there was one.
This may become a cult-classic, but not for my age group. We know what it means to be a man. Men can eat quiche and cry, and still be manly.