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  Art of Self-Defense, The Are You A Man Or A Dachshund?
Year: 2019
Director: Riley Stearns
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Philip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Hauke Bauer, Jason Burkey, Dallas Edwards, Davey Johnson, Katherine Martin, Leland Orser, Frederic Spitz, Justin Eaton, Louis Robert Thompson, C.J. Rush
Genre: ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is an accountant who is living a life unfulfilled, even downtrodden as if he is ever noticed by anyone else, and that doesn't happen often, he is treated as a doormat, even insulted. When he steps in to a conversation at work to defend their boss, he is regarded as something subhuman, and one evening when he goes out to buy some food for his pet dachshund, a biker gang menace and eventually beat him up in the street. He is utterly humiliated, and once out of hospital he makes up his mind that this will never happen again, so after watching an action thriller on television, he goes to buy a handgun for self-defence. But there are other defences...

This low-ish budget, deadpan but pointed comedy started life as a spoof of The Karate Kid, which after watching it you can kind of recognise in the plot and some of the jokes, but possibly only makes more sense if its concept involved Ralph Macchio joining Cobra Kai instead of listening to Mister Miyagi. That was essentially what transpired here: Casey, made to doubt his masculinity, signs up with a martial arts school run by the charismatic, reasonable-sounding Alessandro Nivola character known only as Sensei, and soon finds the man's teachings influencing every aspect of his life, making him increasingly assertive until the creeping doubts raise their collective heads once again.

As you might have perceived, this was one of those "masculinity in crisis" movies that seemed to be ushered in by Fight Club right at the close of the previous century and managed to define how men saw themselves for decades afterwards. It was a little unfortunate The Art of Self-Defense was released the same year as Joker, for they were treading similar paths even if they did not reach similar conclusions: here, the female is necessary to balance the macho violence of the male, she being encapsulated in basically the sole woman of any significance in the story, Anna, played by an unsmiling Imogen Poots as a martial arts expert who is prevented by Sensei from her black belt.

A black belt that is rightfully hers, since she can easily better the other male students in combat, yet she too has been caught up in this psychologically unhealthy atmosphere of proving your worth by threatening violence, or simply being capable of knocking someone into the middle of next week purely because it heightens your standing. The thought of Eisenberg as an action hero was significantly tempered by the surroundings, as while Casey considers getting a gun and shooting his way out of his problems, it is the combat training as a way of existence that both directs him to act like an aggressive bully and also places him in the positions of being subservient to the toxic Sensei's tutoring. Nevertheless, he did get to act out beating people up, so something different from his usual roles.

All very thematically strong, but how was it as a comedy? Oddly, writer and director Riley Stearns displayed an overbearing sensibility himself, in that there was too much of an edge to the humour to make it consistently funny, indeed, in many cases no matter how absurd or preposterous it got, the fact it was additionally pretty nasty in making its points had the laughter freezing in your throat. For every genuinely earned laugh, there were two or three scenes that hit too close to home when depicting the lengths the twenty-first century male will go to in order to justify or boost his confidence, and Casey was such a nice guy, frightened little rabbit it was not exactly hilarious to see him corrupted and sent down a path that despite him overcoming, he had to match the violence of his oppressors to do so. It didn't matter that Anna becomes empowered by his acknowledgement of her as a fighting force, there remained too much of the blaring, hypermasculine in the solutions to be comfortable. That said, there's no reason it should not have made the viewer uneasy: that could be the meaning of the exercise. Music by Heather McIntosh.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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