Martial arts stand for different things to different people. For some of us, they’re a form of exercise, a gateway to philosophy, an art and a sport. They can be a vehicle for empowerment and self-improvement. But a self-governed activity largely focused on physical violence certainly has its dark side, one so apparent that it can only be ignored willingly.
This dichotomy forms the central idea in The Art of Self Defense. The question here, though, is not about if and when this activity becomes unhealthy and dangerous. It’s already unhealthy and dangerous. The question here is “can it be funny?”
Our lead, Casey, is played by Jesse Eisenberg, who gives us a meek character that seems to defy the laws of nature for even a civilized society. Casey is picked on in every part of his life; his best friend is a dog better suited to offer dependence than companionship. Even this dog, man’s best friend, serves to remind Casey of his own inadequacy as a provider.
So, this being a martial arts movie, an event occurs and becomes a catalyst for Casey’s dissatisfaction with his own existence, leading to him attempting to change that existence through martial arts.
The very first martial arts film ever made, The Karate Kid, was essentially formed around the same story. There are elements of that movie in The Art of Self Defense, to be sure. But there are plenty of other familiar touchstones: The Foot Fist Way, for one. Fight Club is the other readily apparent comparison. And while Self Defense will never achieve that movie’s cultural visibility, the story elements have too many parallels to ignore.
Whereas Fight Club gave us Brad Pitt’s charismatic physical perfection, Self Defense gives us Alessandro Nivola’s Sensei, a man who goes by Sensei in every aspect of his life. He’s meant to be humorous, with his hypermasculine adages, and Nivola has some phenomenal line deliveries here. The things he says, he means, and the words come across as being not only believed, but lived.
Sensei’s best student is Anna, played with pained resolve by Imogen Gay Poots. She is the token female character here, and in some ways, it seems like there could be a better film salvaged from her experience. She is incredibly competent, held back only by misogyny.
It takes little for an insular niche group such as a karate school to essentially become a small, somewhat less dangerous cult. Anna’s insistence on continuing her training at this school, devoted to an environment intended to limit her, is one obvious parallel. Sensei’s belief in his own ideals is another. But is this funny?
At times, maybe. As a whole, I’m less sure. Self Defense is intended as a dark comedy, but it never really understands its tone. The combination of absurdism and violence seems perfectly suited to Adult Swim, or FX, but here it’s too familiar to laugh at. It takes a certain slapstick quality, a lightness of consequences, to laugh at physical harm, and I’m not sure there is any of that lightness to be found here. Instead, it seems that we’re meant to laugh at the darkness, at real violence, and it comes across as tone-deaf at best.
There is precious little sympathy to be found in these characters, and the dark humor is mostly dark for its own sake. Some of this is admittedly perspective; as someone who has done martial arts for a number of years, I’ve known some great instructors and competitors, both male and female. But I’ve also seen plenty of would-be leaders like Sensei, self-appointed kings of their strip malls who could never drive a truck big enough.
By the time this movie reveals its mysteries, most of which should be obvious well before they are shown, I think all of the questions about this movie have been answered. This includes my own questions from above; I don’t think they have to be explicitly stated here.
I saw a trailer for Self Defense before another movie, and thought it looked like it had potential, that the trailer seemed to have a good grasp of the dark humor needed for a movie like this. Unfortunately, the trailer had much better editing than the movie itself had writing. The movie that the trailer preceded was The Last Black Man in San Francisco; if you can, go see that movie instead.