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story.lead_photo.caption Brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots) and yellow belt Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) know something’s amiss with their Sensei in The Art of Self-Defense, a darkly comic critique of toxic masculinity.

There is a certain sort of what we may call "slight" comedy, that is, the sort of comedy that doesn't seek to elicit a strong reaction out of you one way or the other. It eschews the risk of big laughs in place of a series of smaller, more ethereal sorts of (mostly silent) vague amusements.

On its face, there's nothing inherently wrong with keeping that sort of downbeat vibe -- just as every drama doesn't have to be A Few Good Men, and every war picture Platoon, thank the gods, not every comedy needs to swing for the fences -- but it is a tricky formula to get right. As the patron saint of such films, even Mike White often struggles to hit a tone that doesn't go so deadpan as to lose its sense of conviction.

The Art of Self-Defense

80 Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello, Leland Orser, David Zellner

Director: Riley Stearns

Rating: R, for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

If you want to rate a film by its laugh quotient, you probably aren't so interested in this branch of comedy to begin with (laughing at such comedies often involves a great deal of wincing in the process), but even by these meager standards, Riley Stearns' film about an impotent outcast's rise to eventual karate-based empowerment, is pretty pallid.

Naturally, the lead is played by Jesse Eisenberg, an interesting, intelligent actor with a penchant for playing characters who wear their all-consuming self-consciousness as either a deflector shield, or a badge of honor. Here, he plays a nebbish accountant named Casey who gets beaten to a pulp by a group of helmeted bikers one night walking home from buying dog food for his dachshund. Emerging from the hospital even more fearful than before, he eventually enrolls in the karate dojo of a steely man who introduces himself only as "Sensei" (Alessandro Nivola), a ruthless black-belt instructor, prone to spouting vacant aphorisms ("Kick with your hands; Punch with your feet!"), and, it turns out, also manipulating his dedicated students to do his peculiar bidding.

Shortly after enrolling, Casey is practicing his hand forms under his desk at work, and taking macho life lessons from Sensei, who insists that Casey drop his penchant for "adult contemporary" in favor of "metal," switch his learning of French for German, and encourages him -- animal lovers, be on guard! -- to exchange his sweet dachshund for a frothy German shepherd.

As Casey becomes enthralled with this identity, drawing power from his newly awarded yellow belt, he also becomes aware of Anna (Imogen Poots), one of Sensei's original students, who toils away with her brown belt, even as her teacher awards the coveted black belt to less deserving men over her time and again.

Not that there are terribly many, but eventually, all the plot threads come together like a dollar-store draw-string bag, allowing Casey to take back his personal dignity, and proving himself more of a leader than anyone might have guessed.

Stearns, making his second film (he previously made Faults), has a feel for character, but doesn't seem quite in control of his tone. Comedy can come from anywhere, but it still requires a focus point, a consistent relay that lets the audience understand from what direction the humor is to be forthcoming, Too often Stearns takes a scattershot approach -- Sensei describing the death of his beloved master is meant to be funny in its specificity, but the character doesn't take that same tack anywhere else in the film; Casey's deadpan self-commentary ("I want to be what intimidates me"), comes across as an affectation rather than a characteristic -- that gives the film an unwelcome thrown-together quality.

As for Eisenberg, after establishing himself as the go-to for manically awkward intellectuals, he's been spending the last few years trying to expand his range, as a stoner agent in American Ultra; an overworked entrepreneur in The Hummingbird Project; and Lex freaking Luther in the latest round of Superman escapades. He's an actor, in many ways, who is who he is, always playing off of variations of his own idiosyncrasies, but nevertheless unafraid to expand upon his palette, even if the result is only more subtle shades of gray, but here, it must be said, he's pretty much treading water. One gets the sense he could play similarly awkward characters with his staple disaffected line delivery while in a coma.

As much of a pleasure as it is to watch the criminally underrated Nivola on screen again, even his presence can't make up for the film's predilection for nebulousness. One potential downside to making a comedy this low-wattage is its stated banality. You might think you've created something underplayed and quirky, but it can just as easily settle into forgettable.

Anna (Imogen Poots) and her rival Thomas (Steve Terada) vie for the attention of their instructor in Riley Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense (2019).

MovieStyle on 07/19/2019

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