They’re men! Men in belts, tight belts! They roam around the dojo looking for fights!

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), the worse off in a mugging, enrols in the local Karate school lead by ultra-dude Sensei, known simply as, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Local brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots), among several students, are a lot more than they seem.

Skewering hyper-masculinity and what it means to be masculine, nay a man; a distinction The Art of Self-Defense does well to draw, for how subtle this comedy is, and there’s no more appropriate way to say this, it doesn’t pull the punches.

Eisenberg, plaintive and quietly comic as ever, propels his familiar, underlyingly agitative schtick to here darker heights. Nivola, Pollux Troy himself (the eagle-eyed will catch the sly Face/Off homage) and a very underrated actor, saddled with the best comic lines wisely doesn’t pause or offer near a wink to ensure each and every one lands. The only one herein properly operating akin to the register of this film, the pacing likewise resists the temptation to underline these many excellent moments with a hasty music cue or focal shift; the creatives alongside Nivola permitting the darker humour to blend naturally into the narrative as if it was, necessarily, just another not irregular conversational beat.       

Displaying a rarely accomplished grasp of satire’s bona fides, not unlike the still exemplar Network, The Art of Self-Defense begins with accentuated, uncommon yet by no means very unrealistic happenstances which gradually and, importantly, seamlessly morph into the exaggerated and then heightened hallmarks of satire for which this film is most memorable.

Casey, it being impressed that this is a very feminine name on par with any music that isn’t metal, here follows a trajectory alike Bruce Wayne’s earlier experiences in Christopher Nolan’s very first Batman entry. Recovering from the fallout of an assault, toying with firearms (only Homer’s fling with guns managed such a contentious setting better) and feeling the need to uber-macho, The Art of Self-Defense hilariously boils down that same flick’s grand narrative and thematic ambition to this local neighbourhood yellow-belt in the course of delivering at times very apparent and almost pointedly stated if still droll commentary.  

Now, the ‘twist.’ The first such one, related to the identities of key figures and overwhelmingly obvious, at least in narrative terms thankfully isn’t treated as a twist. Neither the story nor characters pausing at any point to emphasise that this is an about turn, those involved were wise to acknowledge that any such approach could only come off as hackneyed. Laying the groundwork for some minor upending, these relative though not insignificant revelations do comparatively come out of left field; too lending The Art of Self Defense some surprise and it’s greatest degree of urgency.   

And now; the ending. It’s only slightly less obvious than the first twist, but for the delivery of that speech, aboundingly funny for being so sparing with words and ensuring every one hits the mark, this and all that transpires will no doubt resonate for audiences who would do well to discover this gem.

The Art of Self-Defense, which screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, screens as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival at Marrickville’s Factory Theatre on Saturday 14 September at 8PM and Sunday 15 September at 3PM and as part of Screenwave on January 11 and 19, 2020

on Falkenscreen