“A delightfully sharp comedy.”
Here is the funniest film of the festival so far, by a significant margin. In an absurdly deadpan style, with dashes of Jody Hill and Wes Anderson, twisted up with a delightfully uncomfortable cruelty reminiscent of Armando Iannucci, Jeremy Saulnier, and Yorgos Lanthimos, Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense is a comedic gem, which is sure to develop a cult following if found and appreciated by the right crowd.
This is a comedy that fires on all cylinders, but with a refreshingly subtle style. As a film, everything works; its camerawork is impressive and enjoyable, its script is clever and tight, and its performances are perfectly attuned to the material and tone. As a slice of comedy, it truly shines, with laugh-out-loud turns of phrase and amusingly absurd details coming at you constantly.
We follow Casey, played by a clearly comfortable Jesse Eisenberg, as he reaches the lamentable conclusion that he is just too weak and pathetic at everything. He is disrespected at work and in day-to-day life, finding solace only in the silent support of his minuscule, adorable dachshund (the EIFF has yet to establish an award like Cannes’ Palme Dog, but if it did, this little fella would be a serious frontrunner). It takes a brutal mugging, where a gang of masked assailants on motorbikes attack Casey for no good reason in the street, to spur him into action. Initially, in a hilarious scene that promises extensive rewatch value, Casey attempts to buy a gun — Stearns does not seem to have much political intention with most of this film, but he does not hold back from offering a few sharp and playful jabs at how unbelievably inadvisable gun ownership can often be. Finding little of use there, Casey instead seeks out his local karate dojo, meets the inscrutable Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and signs up to learn some self-defense. Things only get better from there.
As he spends more and more time at the dojo, Casey grows closer to Sensei and learns the intricacies of karate and its disciples. There are the eleven rules each member must invariably follow; there are rituals and secret classes that Sensei rules over with an iron fist; and there’s the mystifying and stoic Anna, played incredibly well by Imogen Poots (in one of two performances beside Eisenberg this year, the other being Kenneth Lonergan’s Vivarium, which I saw at Cannes and liked; these two have excellent chemistry in both). The film really excels as Sensei takes Casey under his wing, and offers sidesplittingly bone-headed advice for making everything in Casey’s life “as masculine as possible.” He dismisses Casey’s interest in France, sensitive music, and small dogs, leading Casey to grow unnaturally tough in a series of terribly funny scenes in which Eisenberg puts his all into embodying unearned confidence and unbridled machismo — all the while letting Stearns hilariously depict the most absurd understandings of manliness you’ll see this side of the Republican National Convention.
Some of these moments do have some lightly questionable implications as we see eventful shifts in Casey’s attitude at home, at work, and in the dojo, but Stearns deftly stops short of making anything too serious to be an issue. The result of all the silliness also means some developments later on feel rather odd, and don’t always make sense, but the rest of it is so genuinely funny that these cannot be too harshly judged. And Stearns does, to his credit, build up to a genuinely exciting climax that I enjoyed more than anything else at the festival so far. Eisenberg and Poots having already turned in wonderful comedic performances in their time, it is Nivola whose comedic talent surprises as he delivers a genuinely great performance as Sensei. This trio is excellently matched.
If you want a delightfully sharp comedy, with enough laughs to be enjoyable and enough brutality to be engaging and surprising, then seek this out. I wager this will be a very successful streaming title; it’s the perfect type of give-it-a-try movie that will likely make many a curious viewer laugh all the way through their late night streaming session. I know I will watch it again as soon as I am able.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller