Too obvious, too overt, too derivative and too on-the-nose.
One of the more alarming trends of the past decade is that mainstream cultural consumption—including US politics, whose baroque fakery and posturing amounts to entertainment for consumer-voters—has lost all of its sophistication. Movies for adults are no longer made and teenagers, God love ‘em, just do not go in for subtlety or profundity. If a filmmaker wants his (and let’s face it, most of them are male) movie to be seen, he either has to dumb it down to a teenage level or just create it pre-dumbed. This is no revelation; influential film people from Matt Damon to Steven Soderbergh to Jonah Hill have been saying this for years. The Art of Self-Defense is the apotheosis of this broader problem.
The second feature by promising writer-director Riley Stearns, it’s headlined by Jesse Eisenberg, one of today’s most talented actors, and is being released by the respected studio/production company Bleecker Street. The film should tell us something about the world while also being amusing. And yet, while the directing is fine, the acting brilliant and the story good enough, it does not coalesce into an enjoyable and worthwhile film. It is just too obvious, too overt, too derivative and too on-the-nose.
The Art of Self-Defense is a satire of toxic masculinity. It is also a period piece—set in that precise moment in the ‘90s when US culture was shifting from VHS tapes to DVDs—that makes much about its own stylized affectations: characters speak in wooden tones and the sets are so intentionally generic that even someone (like this writer) who has lived in Louisville, Kentucky would only know the film was shot there because of IMDB.
Eisenberg plays Casey, a wimpy accountant who’s mugged by an anonymous motorcycle gang and subsequently joins a karate dojo to build his confidence. He instantly takes to the martial art but slowly discovers that the dojo, particularly its sensei, named (in a perfect example of the film’s stylized affectation) Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), has many dangerous and compromising secrets. Casey’s embrace of Sensei’s hyperbolic hyper-masculinity unravels into increasing violence as the film reaches its climax.
Here’s the thing: everyone has already seen this film, directed by David Fincher at his peak. Fight Club is set in the ‘90s, features a nebbish corporate hack discovering his true inner Alpha Male by fighting and is a satire of toxic masculinity. Moreover, The Art of Self-Defense cribs multiple lines of dialogue and whole scenes straight from Fight Club–and takes lines from fellow 1999 Hall-of-Famer Office Space as well. When, for example, one dojo member violates the sparring rules and beats another to a pulp, she all but says “I wanted to destroy something beautiful” in fully mimicking Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden. The issue is not that Stearns has practically re-made Fight Club—his film shares a release date with the live-action re-make of The Lion King, after all—but rather that the differences between Stearns and Fincher’s efforts are so stark and emphasize how juvenile films have become post-MCU, post-Young Adult franchise films and post-Hollywood abandoning adult audiences.
Namely, The Art of Self-Defense is ham-fisted. Every plot point is maddeningly obvious, including the supposed Big Twist. The satire is more like S-A-T-I-R-E, with clap-hand emoji between every letter to make sure every, single, person, understands, that, this, is, satirical. The jokes—the film is nominally comedic—are exact lines that 15-year-old boys say to each other for a laugh; take this from someone who as a 15-year-old boy thought he was a genius in saying that French was not a very manly language because the nation is famous for surrendering quickly in wartime. Basically, this is humor for people who liked Deadpool 2, a film 33-year-old me cringes at the 15-year-old-me for loving. Additionally, given the number of murders portrayed the film is quite sanitized; whereas Fincher knows that we are all perverts at heart, Stearns seems to think that we are all pearl-clutching, prudish mothers of teenage boys.
Ultimately, none of this would matter if the film were entertaining instead of merely being earnest and proud of itself for saying something about society. But The Art of Self-Defense does not saying anything meaningful about society, at least not to people who understand the world. In his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott argued that Stearns is that grinning frat-bro buffoon who skipped Gender Studies class. A quick glance around the US would show that such buffoons are running the joint, but that does not mean the rest of us, who are struggling to suffer such fools, are so foolish. It is a shame that our films have to be dumbed down by filmmakers who are afraid we are not smart enough to understand something even a little bit intelligent.