starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada
written and directed by Riley Stearns
Fantasia Festival 2019 runs July 11-August 1 in Montreal, Quebec. Visit the fest's official site for more details.
by Walter Chaw Riley Stearns's The Art of Self-Defense is the easier-to-digest version of a Yorgos Lanthimos film, but only star Jesse Eisenberg knows it. He's in The Lobster; everyone else is in an ironic-slopping-over-into-arch indie exercise that presents toxic masculinity and rape culture as something with a potentially upbeat outcome. It's a fairy tale, in other words--the kind sanitized for your protection, although the occasional flashes of ultra-violence suggest that it was something darker in an earlier conception. What remains is a sometimes mordantly funny social satire that loses first its steam in its middle section (when a post-workout massage doesn't pull the trigger it should have pulled), then its nerve with a resolution that actually feels pandering and weak-willed. The picture wants very much to console, yet there's no consolation. I guess the real lesson learned is that the temperature of the room isn't real interested in hearing how everything's going to be all right. The key moment left hanging is a confrontation in a parking lot with a random dude who slaps a bag of groceries out of our hero's hands. It's aggression from nothing, humiliating for a character we've come to like, and evocative of a greater world outside where it's already too late: The monkeys run the monkey house, and they're rabid and hungry. Manufacturing a happy ending from this mess is insulting.
The better version of all this is David Fincher's other wallow in the territory of fragile male egos, The Social Network--or, you know, the saga of every major corporation in the United States. (Its government, too.) Anna tells a horrifying story of rape and revenge and her inability to penetrate the dojo's glass ceiling, and her reward is a blackbelt, an honour she's coveted, conferred on her by...Casey? His ultimate triumph seems at the expense of Anna's eventual triumph: she's just traded one guy for another. Stearns gives Anna the moral weight of the piece only to have her beat the ever-loving crap out of a rival, Brad Pitt-on-Jared Leto-in-Fight Club-style. Too, he gives her a long monologue in the end about the possibility for strength through peace and relegates Casey to teaching karate to children, as though these acts are restorative rather than palliative. There's hope in The Art of Self-Defense instead of dire warning. Where Lanthimos's films hit these same targets with deadly efficiency, Stearns's film badly undershoots. It's so superior to the topic and its characters--and, let's face it, making fun of bros isn't exactly a tough assignment--that its condescension overflows onto the audience. If it didn't want so much to be liked, it'd be more successful. There's a lesson for everyone in that. Fantasia Festival 2019 - Programme: Selection 2019