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.