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Review: Lots of kicking, but no punch in ‘Art of Self-Defense’

  • COURTESY BLEEKER STREET

    Jesse Eisenberg stars in “The Art of Self-Defense.”

“THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE”

***

(R, 1:44)

Jesse Eisenberg excels at playing an easily dismissible type — the nebbish, the misanthrope, the loner — but within that type he often discovers a startling range of emotional notes.

The lesson is delivered again in “The Art of Self-Defense,” an unnerving, exacting dark comedy set at the crowded juncture of masculinity and violence. Written and directed by Riley Stearns, the movie stars Eisenberg as Casey Davies, a mild-mannered accountant whose dull existence is upended when he gets mugged by masked bikers.

As he recovers, Casey considers buying a firearm, but he thinks better of it and heads instead to a nearby dojo, where he begins studying karate under a smoothly charismatic sensei (a terrific Alessandro Nivola).

Casey’s fellow students vary in expertise: There’s Henry (David Zellner), a friendly blue belt who shows him the ropes, and Anna (Imogen Poots), a fierce red belt who is the only adult female in the dojo. Their devotion to this training space feels peculiar in its intensity, as does their desire for their sensei’s approval. But Casey has a talent for self-improvement, and soon he’s the hot newcomer of the dojo.

Much of the pleasure of “The Art of Self-Deception” comes from its sly derangement of a familiar dramatic template, the motivational get-in-shape movie. Karate experts can either take offense or delight in the way Stearns merges the rigors of martial arts — the attention to etiquette and technique, the hierarchies imposed by belt colors — with a controlled surrealism that becomes more menacing by the minute.

The gullible Casey loves this structured world and gladly absorbs every one of its rules and rituals, not realizing what he’s become until it’s too late.

The dojo isn’t the only environment where everything seems off-kilter. It’s unclear exactly when the story is taking place, given the old-school camcorder and VHS tapes that figure into the plot. Everyone here speaks in complete sentences, an amusing formality.

The words “toxic masculinity” are never spoken, though they would be redundant in a movie where the sensei articulates his retrograde notions about how men and women are supposed to behave. The becomes an unambiguous satire of chauvinistic cruelty and pure, motiveless bloodlust. Will Casey, once a victim of that culture, become one of its enforcers, or one of its challengers?

The answer isn’t entirely clear at first, which is a good thing. With icy, deadpan control, Stearns walks a perilously thin line between the provocative and the preposterous, courting your shock as well as your laughter. Unfortunately, the more the shape of the story comes into focus in the final moments, the less intriguing it becomes.

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