Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 24, 2019)
A quirky take on the story of an ordinary man pushed too hard by violence, 2019’s The Art of Self-Defense introduces us to Casey Davies (Jesse Eiseberg), a 30-something accountant. Awkward and friendless, Casey lives an isolated life with only his faithful Dachshund as company.
One night Casey runs out of dog food and walks to the store to get more. On the trek home, thugs on motorcycles mug him.
Eager for protection, Casey initially plans to buy a gun, but by chance, he finds his way into a karate dojo. Entranced by the empowerment promised by its Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), Casey soon becomes a devoted student.
This comes with various ramifications, as Casey evolves. While he becomes more assertive, he also finds a dark underbelly at the dojo, as the Sensei turns out to be more malevolent than he initially believes.
If you want my five-word review of Art, here goes:
“Wes Anderson Remakes Fight Club”.
While that simplifies matters to a degree, I thing it provides a pretty clear picture of what to expect from Art. An odd combination of stilted, introverted comedy and violent revenge fantasy, the end product doesn’t work.
Not that I view Art as a complete disaster, as it manages a few amusing moments. However, these appear awfully infrequently, and the movie loses massive points due to the sledgehammer manner in which it conveys its message.
For reasons that seem unclear, Art takes place in the 1990s, but it comes with themes that feel more 2010s, mainly in the way it addresses toxic masculinity. Art devotes major screentime to topics connected to manliness, with an obvious orientation toward condemnation of men who feel the need to push their gender stereotypes in an aggressive way.
All done in a quirky, understated manner, of course, as Art never loses its art house vibe. Like a Wes Anderson flick, Art feels overplanned within an inch of its life, and the actors severely underplay their roles.
Barely an emotion registers through this thoroughly deadpan film, as the roles get performed in a relentlessly subdued manner. This contrasts the growing insanity of the characters’ actions in an ironic way that prompts a few knowing chuckles but it also makes the events more difficult to accept.
I get that Art wants to function as parody to some degree, but it still goes too far in its disconnect from the real world. The Sensei and the students need to embrace a cultish mode that doesn’t make a lot of sense and fails to meet the smell test.
My biggest issue with Art comes from its never-ending stupidity, though, mainly related to the aforementioned lack of subtlety. A better film would let us connect to the themes of masculine stereotypes in a more insightful, clever way, but this one just beats us over the head.
Not a single understated moment arises. This leaves us stuck with absurd scenes that exist solely to promote the movie’s philosophy.
Again, the film covers territory similar to Fight Club, but writer/director Riley Stearns doesn’t measure up with David Fincher. Stearns lacks the ability to create an insightful, clever take, so he opts for the most obvious conceits.
All of these factors turn Art into a heavy-handed disappointment. If you hope to find a witty, engaging character piece, you’ll encounter disappointment instead.