The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

R Running Time: 108 mins



  • Sandpaper dry, deadpan humor your cup of tea? The Art of Self-Defense awaits you and could become a cult favorite in the months and years to come.

  • We really don’t talk enough about how great an actor Jesse Eisenberg really is. (Though Alessandro Nivola almost steals the show!)

  • A blistering satire of toxic masculinity and the culture which surrounds it.


  • Underscoring the first “Pro” up above - if deadpan, dark humor is not your thing…you will likely check out of this really quickly.

  • Becomes something far more different by the end, which audiences may not like or be ready for.

  • If you’re a “bro” or a “dude”, or love hanging with your “boys,” I hope you have a thick skin when watching this. Satire is seldom kind.


Writer/director Riley Stearns has dropped a ticking timebomb in the middle of the room with The Art of Self-Defense, a bleak, cynical satire on toxic masculinity and finding one’s worth from within. Led by a terrific performance from Jesse Eisenberg, Stearns has a movie that will get people talking, if it finds an audience curious enough to sample its oddball premise.

Eisenberg plays Casey, a down-on-his-luck accountant who tends to his dachsund and seems lost in maneuvering through the world. When he tries to chat with three co-worker “bros” at lunch, the kind who spout misogyny and that now-infamous “locker room talk” we have come into this.. Casey is instantly mocked, ridiculed and made fun of.

After forgetting to pick up food for his dog one evening, a walk to the grocery store ends with a motorcycle gang of assailants jumping Casey and beating him up terribly. This pushes him over the edge. So, Casey decides to fix the ills of his life, and the people conspiring against him, by taking up karate.

Eisenberg portrays Casey as soft-spoken, skittish, and emotionally frail. Seizing on his new client like an animal to a fresh kill, dojo founder Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) ushers Casey into a beginner’s class where he finds a ragtag mix of men of varying ages and talents, as well as Anna (Imogen Poots), the lone woman in Sensei’s program.

Nivola is fantastic opposite Eisenberg, and arguably steals the show. He is very blunt, direct, quite funny, but seldom raises his voice. His whispery demeanor conjures up both an affability, absurdity, and mysteriousness surrounding his actions. Nivola keeps us compelled by every thing he does and says.

Stearns builds his movie brick-by-brick, or rather kick-and-punch by kick-and-punch. Midway through the film, an incident forces Casey to rethink his pliable and clenched demeanor and strike out on his own. It is awkward as one can imagine, but gives way to a hilarious turn of events as Casey takes his 35-year-old introverted self and tries to suddenly roar like a lion.

In the second half of the film, Poots really shines and The Art of Self-Defense becomes something more than just a pot-shot on “bro culture.” Anna is a constant voice of reason and she tries to befriend Casey as he becomes more entrenched in Sensei’s bizarre routines and philosophies. Some might argue that the movie is really about the juxtaposition between Anna’s sensibilities as a woman trying to be seen by men, opposite the agita welling up inside Casey, bottled up for most of his 35 years.

However, anecdotally, this might be one of the funniest movies of the year. Dry and deadpan is not everyone’s cup of tea, and this is scratchy, dark humor on display here. In the same car where Casey is trying to learn French for example, he is given a German death metal compilation by Sensei, for purposes of listening and working out. Soon, Casey is ready to rear naked choke and heel kick his way through anyone and anything who could potentially hurt him emotionally.

And even if The Art of Self-Defense delivers a final 20 minutes that is wacky and a bit bonkers, Stearns remains flat out unafraid of calling things out as he sees them.

Through Casey, he creates a conduit for everyone who looks the other way or stays silent when douchey men drain all the air out of the room, nab the hottest dates, stab co-workers in the back, and get all the opportunities. With Anna, we see a form of assimilation, for purposes of surviving in a pack of karate students. Along the way, she becomes a friend, mentor, and protector of a man so far incapable of taking care of things for himself.

After this film and 2014’s Faults, Riley Stearns is kind of a big deal. His ideas and concepts rattle cages and makes viewers think about unspoken thoughts and feelings they typically keep to themselves.

Even if I struggle to champion the last scenes of the film, The Art of Self-Defense makes one hell of a statement on gender roles, equality, and fairness in the world. And because of Stearns’ unique script, he has given us a quotable, queasy, disquieting movie to contemplate for a long time to come.


Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner,

Director: Riley Stearns
Written by: Riley Stearns
Release Date: July 12, 2019
Bleecker Street Media