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Imagine a Jared Hess movie penned by Paul Schrader and you’re halfway towards anticipating the dark, droll laughs of Riley Stearns’ latest offering. Led by a never better Jesse Eisenberg, The Art of Self-Defense is a serious character study on the toxic tribalism of modern masculinity that also happens to be seriously funny.
After being brutally beaten in the street by a group of masked bikers, mild-mannered accountant Casey (Eisenberg) enrols in a local karate class to learn how to stick up for himself. But as he quickly subscribes to the dangerous philosophies and pervasive machismo of his teacher ‘Sensei’ (Alessandro Nivola, in sublime deadpan mode), he starts to transform into precisely the kind of bully he sought to overcome. That trajectory could sound a little familiar on paper, but Stearns keeps things thrillingly off-kilter on screen, consistently throwing us curveballs and nasty surprises. The result is one of the most memorable American comedies of recent times. — JF
“[It] skates such a tricky balance between important and absurd, meaningful and fun. The film has a lot to say but says it all in the weirdest, funniest, most surprising way possible… There’s just something fundamentally unexpected about Stearns’ movie, an unpredictability baked into its very DNA… it provides a staying power that a lot of these pitch-black indie comedies don’t have... But for all of this talk about how significant The Art of Self-Defense is, I don’t want to detract from how hilarious it is, too. It’s just so, so damn funny – every line, every delivery, every bizarre plot point.” — Meredith Borders, SlashFilm