Few things are as awful in the world right now (and, I guess, throughout all of history) than entitled and toxic men. You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute, Wolfman…aren’t YOU kind of a man?” Well, you’re sort of right! Regardless of my masculinity (or crippling lack thereof), our current cultural climate is seeing our society completely tear down previously held beliefs about what it means to be a “man” and, not only redefine that gender construct, but also establish that there’s a lot more that defines a person than what is between their legs. While The Art of Self-Defense manages to critique the longheld notions of masculinity in clever ways, the film ultimately loses sight of what it’s trying to say, or realizes that it really didn’t have that much to say to begin with.
After suffering a brutal mugging, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) witnesses the ways in which karate can empower even the meekest of men and fully embraces the teachings of a local Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Casey’s newfound love of martial arts opens up an all-new world for him, as he’s no longer intimidated by the men he once feared. Of course, being a man isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as Casey gets in over his head in his pursuit of masculinity.
There’s a lot about this premise that is great! Really anything that calls out toxic masculinity on any level can be commended, especially when an entire feature film is committed to the idea. Writer/director Riley Stearns manages to call out the culture in subtle ways that’s sure to ruffle the feathers of those who adhere to those beliefs, while the rest of us, even if we share those beliefs to a degree, can understand their absurdity. Whether it be guns, heavy metal, or push-ups, Casey’s embrace of hobbies that project masculinity doesn’t call out everyone who participates in such things, but those who take offense at their representation are the exact people that Stearns means to agitate, if only for the opportunity to reexamine their outlooks.
If anything, I wish the premise had gone further down the absurd path. The film seemingly exists in a parallel universe where you can go to a convenience store and purchase a giant bag of dog food, labeled merely “Dog Food,” and where male coworkers will resort to conversations about their favorite sexual positions without a hint of irony. Yes, there are disgusting creeps in every workplace who probably do engage in such talks, but there’s an overall tone to the film that suggests we aren’t seeing our reality, so much as we’re witnessing a hyperreality where everyone is rendered two-dimensional and their entire belief system is vocalized and projected onto others. In this regard, the film feels like satire, making it more difficult to invest in any of the characters as the whole thing feels like a fantasy. Despite the things clearly being satirized, we’re expected to invest into Casey’s journey, even though he also only ever comes across as a two-dimensional character who lacks anything really dynamic to connect with. This isn’t to say that satire can’t also be nuanced and complex, but the point this film was trying to make never felt like it got more complex than “Macho Dudes Are Lame.”
The premise has all the makings of a sophisticated takedown of masculinity, but the point of it all gets muddled in the second and third acts. Understandably, Stearns focuses on delivering audiences a compelling story with complex characters, yet with the satirical premise of the first act being more engaging than the characters, the film essentially ends after only getting two acts of a fulfilling story. Given the subject matter of the premise, the final product feels more like someone took an “Intro to Exposing Toxic Masculinity” university course but dropped out halfway through to make a movie. The Art of Self-Defense ultimately gives us multiple effective and engaging elements, both with its cultural critiques and with its characters, but by the end we’re left wondering what the point of any of it all was, as the climax is underwhelming and muddy, as if the movie itself didn’t know what to say to begin with, as opposed to leaving the audiences with ambiguity. The film might connect more strongly with some audiences, but I was left wanting more, even if the film worked as a series of sequences more than a fulfilling narrative.
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