The Art of Self-Defense, the latest feature from writer-director Riley Stearns (Faults), is a movie that rarely goes on the attack. In splitting the difference between a fragile male-ego comedy like Foot-Fist Way and a button-pushing violent satire like Fight Club, the film ends up feeling like it's moving in a crouched position, often countering viewer expectations in clever ways but rarely landing its larger thematic punches. At the very least, Stearns, a deliberate and thoughtful filmmaker, is taking big swings. Luckily, he also has a not-so-secret weapon: a fascinating, note-perfect lead performance from Jesse Eisenberg.
Cunning and precise, Eisenberg is the type of actor who elevates almost any movie he appears in. From his early roles playing precocious teenagers in whip-smart indie comedies like Rodger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale to his likely career-defining part as Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's Facebook saga The Social Network and his recent scenery-chewing take on Lex Luthor in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, he's often playing prickly, nervy outsiders. (One of his most underrated recent movies, Kelly Reichardt's eco-thriller Night Moves, is currently streaming on Netflix.) In The Art of Self-Defense, he plays the adrift, isolated young-ish man Casey, an accountant with an interest in learning to speak French and no friends (or family) in sight.
One night, Casey leaves his nondescript apartment in an unnamed city to purchase food for his small dog and he gets beaten up -- seemingly out of nowhere -- by a group of goons on motorcycles. It's a brutal, humiliating encounter, a variation on the classic Death Wish revenge set-up, and, after a brief comical detour to a gun shop, it eventually leads Casey to a karate class taught by an instructor who tells his students to call him Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). While under Sensei's self-mythologizing guidance, Casey also meets the only woman at the gym, Anna (Imogen Poots), and begins to turn his life around by embracing a ridiculous, hyper-macho ideology of force.