The Art of Self-Defense gets dark comedy right thanks to Jesse Eisenberg’s performance

The Art of Self-Defense gets dark comedy right thanks to Jesse Eisenberg’s performance
Dark comedy is probably the hardest cinematic genre to deliver successfully. With science-fiction, you can sometimes skate by on technology; with a western, on horses. But the dark comedy requires precise balance and timing; it’s like hard-boiling an egg while juggling lemons.

The Art of Self-Defense pulls it off. Much of that has to do with the central performance by Jesse Eisenberg, who has made a career out of playing mild-mannered pushovers and mouthy jerks. Here he starts as the first type and morphs into the second, thanks to time spent in a karate dojo with a manipulative instructor (Alessandro Nivola) and a bizarre recruitment strategy.

When we first meet Eisenberg’s milquetoast character, Casey, he’s learning French by practicing such phrases as “I don’t want any trouble; I’m just a tourist.” His workmates don’t respect him. Even his answering machine gives him sass: “You have only one unheard message,” it informs him. “No one else left you a message.”

That answering machine, along with the presence of VHS tapes and the absence of cellphones, suggests that writer/director Riley Stearns has set his tale in the 1980s. There aren’t any definitive signposts, however; it’s more of a general sense of analogue, a Napoleon Dynamite feel.

Casey gets mugged one night while out buying dog food for his Dachshund, by a motorcycle thief who has the good sense to first ask if he’s carrying a gun. There may be an anti-gun message lurking in the script, or perhaps it’s pro-gun; the comedy was so dark it was hard to make out the morality.

In either case, Casey wanders into a karate class and decides to sign up. The sensei follows a list of rules that includes “If it works, use it.” As he tells his students: “I would teach a reverse wrist splicer from Mongolian Judo if it wasn’t something I just made up.”

Casey throws himself into his studies, quickly moves from a white belt to a yellow, and celebrates by buying all-yellow food that night. Sensei reminds his students that the dojo’s former grand master wore a rainbow belt, a designation above black that he created and then bestowed on himself. He was killed by a hunter who mistook him for a bird. (So yeah, I think it’s anti-gun.)

The screenplay has a deliberately stilted quality, and it informs the performances. On the advice of his sensei, Casey switches his language lessons to German, learning such useful phrases as: “Buy the next round of beers or I will fight you.” And while it wouldn’t do to call it a romantic subplot, he and one of the other students (Imogen Poots) develop an understanding that brings them closer.

“I want to be what intimidates me,” says our man of his desire to master the martial arts. It’s a sombre statement, but the way he goes about the transformation is inherently humorous, not least because he’s in thrall to an instructor who seems stuck in perpetual adolescence. (It’s instructive that the dojo’s rules, including a tacked-on No. 11, are there for the benefit of a children’s class as well as the adults.)

Rule No. 11? “Guns are for the weak.” So definitely anti-gun. Also quite dark. And very funny.

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