From the tone of the theatrical trailer, I went into this film thinking it would be an off-beat comedy about martial arts. The Art Of Self-Defense has so much more to unpack in its hour-and-forty-four minute runtime than just dry humor. Director and writer Riley Stearns brings a dark-tone to the satiric angle of this film. This film is about Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) and his quest to feel safe after a random mugging and beating. Early on, he sits with whether or not he needs to purchase a firearm for self-defense. The Art Of Self-Defense is a slow-moving film, driving-home how Casey is a meek, soft-spoken push-over accountant. While driving in his car, he listens to how to speak French on tape. One phrase learned is that Casey doesn’t want any trouble and is a tourist. He is awkward dealing with his co-workers, who are the opposite of Casey, being the alpha males around the office.
They stack the violence between moments of silly humor. When Casey goes to the gun store, there is an exchange with the clerk (Davey Johnson) about risks, statistics, and waiting periods that leave you giggling. The Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) puts on his glasses to enter information into an ancient PC. The system to sign up a student’s age can only be inputted in months. When Sensei gives Casey his belt, he gives a speech about the importance, then at the end mentions the fee if it gets lost. The comic relief of these scenes is sprinkled perfectly to provide the film with the tone it has.
As someone who has been in martial arts before, the film does a good job, although exaggerated, showing the tone of the karate studio. With a mixture of showing the rituals and verbal exposition of rules, belt colors, stripes are accurate to my personal experience: my experience minus the sexism. This karate world is filled with testosterone, and the thinking karate is a thing only for a man, and being a tough male is all that you need to become a black belt.
Strangely, after the workouts of the mysterious night class, they take off their clothes and massage each other. Sensei apologizes for Casey cooling down and getting a massage from Anna. According to Sensei, women are weak, and you need muscular hands after a workout. The woman’s changing room isn’t a changing room at all, but part of the boiler room. It was only made because Anna was attacked by a male student after class one day. Per Anna, the women’s changing room is the same in every way to the men’s, only smaller and not as nice.
Casey has a conversation with his Sensei regarding masculinity. His Sensei asks questions regarding his favorite music and hobbies. Sensei stresses that he needs to listen to metal music because it is the toughest music. Sensei goes as far as saying everything should be as masculine as possible. He argues that French is a weak country and they always surrender, he should be interested in powerful countries like Russia or Germany.
Casey is soon consumed by the dogma of his Sensei. When he becomes a yellow belt, he goes grocery shopping, only purchasing yellow items. Casey confesses he wants to wear his yellow belt all the time—he feels less than without it. To counter this feeling, he buys a custom yellow belt for everyday use. Since it was a custom order, he had to buy more than one, so he bought one for everyone in the studio based on their current belt color. They can be the person they want to be inside and outside of the dojo now that they can wear their true colors outside.
The once meek, soft-spoken push-over accountant has changed into the very people he has been afraid of this whole film. He goes to his regular coffee shop and orders black coffee and takes a newspaper from an old man. His explanation is that he takes what he wants and only carries about himself. He confronts the male co-workers and becomes part of their group and punches the boss in the face. Casey is now listening and learning German. When his dachshund is murdered, Sensei gives him the more masculine German Shepherd as a replacement. When Casey finds out the dark truth about the karate studio and Sensai, he is determined to change it. Casey restores balance back to the dojo, defeating Sensei and the toxic masculinity that he was promoting.
Despite being a quirky dark-comedy, the film highlights a real issue that goes on across the country. Women are often seen as less than their male counterparts, and certain sports are off-limits. Unfortunately, the double-edged sword is that we need our male allies to help in pushing change. The Art Of Self-Defense may be an exaggeration, but it goes to show there is more work to be done to break down social barriers.