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Posts Tagged ‘Riley Stearns’

Jesse Eisenberg

“THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE” My rating: B-

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Martial arts build character, hone physical strength, enhance self defense skills and instill discipline and obedience.

That’s the sales pitch, anyway.

But as we learned from the thuggish dojo rats who tormented Ralph Macchio in  “The Karate Kid” (not to mention the Bushido-inspired atrocities of World War II-era Japan), those attributes also make martial arts a fertile breeding ground for fascism.

In “The Art of Self-Defense” writer/director Riley Stearns delivers a deadpan black comedy that turns the whole self-improvement scenario inside out.  A milquetoast wimp (Jesse Eisenberg, always the very essence of cinematic wimp) trains so that he can stand up to bullies; in the process he becomes that which he hates.

Casey (Eisenberg) is a sad, lonely misfit.  He’s an accountant at a firm where the other employees regard him as an odd duck (if they take notice of him at all). His sole relationship is with his sad-eyed Dachshund. He dreams of going to France and in fact is studying the language, but even there he anticipates defeat. Currently he’s working on the phrase “I don’t want any trouble, sir. I’m just a tourist.”

Nearly beaten to death by a gang of cycle-riding assailants, Casey takes indefinite sick leave and retreats to a life of booze straight from the bottle and failed masturbation attempts (he can’t do it while his dog’s watching).

He fills out the paperwork to purchase a handgun, but before he can pick it up he stumbles into the strip mall dojo run by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola in what may be his best role ever).

Sensei (real name Leslie, but we won’t learn that until much later) talks nonstop martial arts platitudes. Karate, he bloviates, is a language, a way of communication. “We form words with our fists and feet.”

With his mix of serene philosophy and physical menace Sensei comes off as the love child of the Dalai Lama and a Marine drill instructor. The wonder of Nivola’s blowhard performance (and Stearns’ writing) is how those woo-woo banalities slowly but surely shift into  threatening machismo. The entire film is a slow-building study in insanity.

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