By Liam Lacey
Toxic masculinity, a phrase which came out of the mythopoetic men’s movement of the eighties, has been so widely used it has begun to sound like a cologne brand — like Fierce or Raw Chemistry. The relationship between maleness and violence is the more-or-less satiric subject of The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jessie Eisenberg as a meek accountant in an office that does something unimportant, but has a lunch room where bros hang out and brag and put each other down.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, The Art of Self-Defense isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but it is full of quirks and smirks. The performances are deliberately wooden and characters declare things a lot. Eisenberg’s character, Casey, speaks in sentences with no contractions and, for some reason, is painfully literal. When he overhears the office bros venting and talking about setting the boss’s house on fire, he tries to explain why that would be a mistake. Reasonably, they tell him where to go.
One night, coming back from the store with a bag of dog food, Casey is brutally and inexplicably attacked by a group of people on motor scooters. When he gets out of hospital, he is traumatized. He takes sick time from work and goes to a gun shop to buy a weapon and then changes his mind.
Instead, he decides to take self-defence lessons at a local karate dojo under the tutelage of a coach (Alessandro Nivola), who leads him on the route to discover his inner cave man. “I’m afraid of other men. They intimidate me. I want to be what intimidates me,” he tells the teacher.
You might think Casey’s stammering manner reflects his post-traumatic stress disorder but he acted the same way before he was assaulted. On the other hand, his teacher, or Sensei, really keeps you guessing as he finds the sweet spot between menacing and preposterous. He is full of Eastern-sounding advice: Make your kick a punch and your punch a kick. And Western-sounding nonsense. Also, study German, not French and switch from listening to adult contemporary to heavy metal: “It’s the toughest music there is. Everything must be as masculine as possible.”
The cultlish world of the dojo is latently homo-erotic, blatantly misogynistic. There’s a woman, Anna (Imogen Poots), in the dojo as well, who’s avid in training children on how to bring down and disable big people and is a ticking timebomb of repressed rage. When all the real men strip to massage each other, Casey is relegated to smaller, shabbier women’s locker room where Anna rubs him down, apologizing for her lack of male strength.
“Her being a woman will always keep her from becoming a man,” Sensei explains.
The film’s tone veers wildly, even — at times —making you care. After getting humiliated in a supermarket parking lot by another man, Casey gets into his car and breaks into wrenching sobs. Eventually, Casey learns to man up, it’s all for laughs again. He starts wearing his “sacred” yellow belt for confidence. He snatches a newspaper from an old man at a coffee shop, orders his coffee hot and black. He even tells his dog, “I won’t be petting you anymore. It’s for your own good.”
There may be a future life for The Art of Self Defense as a cult film. The first half flails around a bit, but it puts up a decent scrap with the angry forces of male b.s. Alas, the stamina is lacking. By the last third, the plot has crumpled and the logic collapsed, as the movie turns into a preposterous, paranoid thriller. At best, it’s no more than a puny version of David Fincher’s Fight Club.
The Art of Self-Defense. Written and directed by Riley Stearns. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots. Opens in select theatres July 19.