In the 1984 feel-good flick The Karate Kid, a teenager stands up to a bully and triumphs. Writer-director Riley Stearns (Faults, The Club) puts a serious spin on that narrative with his new dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense, an offbeat movie that created a sensation when it debuted at South by Southwest earlier this year.
While the film's too strange and out-there to have mass appeal, it does establish Stearns, whose direction is masterful, as a formidable talent. It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, Cinemark Valley View and the Capitol Theatre.
The movie centers on Casey (Jess Eisenberg), a timid bookkeeper who lives alone with his dog. One night as he walks to the store to get his dog some food, a motorcycle gang attacks him, taking his wallet.
At first, Casey looks into buying a gun. But then while walking down the street one day, he passes a karate studio. He asks the instructor, who calls himself Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), if he can take a class. Sensei tells him the classes are open to anyone, and the first class is free.
Casey signs up and meets another instructor Anna (Imogen Poots), who explains the hierarchy of belts to him and puts him in his place, telling him he's a white belt until he earns his first belt. He immediately becomes obsessed with the class but doesn't advance as quickly as he hoped even though Sensei gives him a yellow belt. "I wish I could wear my belt all the time; I feel less-than without it," Casey tells Sensei after one particularly frustrating class.
The two meet to discuss how Casey can do better in the class, and Sensei winces when Casey tells him his favorite type of music is adult contemporary. "From now on, you listen to metal," Sensei tells him in the attempt to remold his personality. He even offers him an invitation to his night class that the most masculine students attend. "I guarantee you, it will help you become what you fear," Sensei says of the night class.
Casey takes it all to heart and begins acting like an exaggerated version of a hyper-masculine man and even refuses to pet his dog anymore because it suggests weakness.
At this point, the film takes a particularly dark turn as the classes become Fight Club-like ordeals.
Eisenberg's performance is really riveting as he fully inhabits his character and shows just how twisted someone can become under the direction of a sadistic teacher.