We needed a truly loopy original movie right about now, and “The Art of Self-Defense” is it. In a summer of remakes and sequels, this dark comedy is one of a kind.
Set in an indeterminate urban area, sort of in the present day but maybe not, the story has a jittery character at its center. Meet Casey Davies: accountant, dachshund owner and full-time doormat. He’s played by “Social Network” star Jesse Eisenberg at his most insecure. Which is a lot.
When people repeatedly tell him how feminine his name sounds, Casey can only acquiesce. He’s used to this kind of treatment.
Mugged one night by a band of bikers, Casey impulsively enlists in a local karate school. Its aggressive, ultra-manly philosophy is embodied in its leader, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), a charismatic black belt.
Sensei (he prefers this form of address) instructs Casey on the finer points of self-defense, to be sure. He feels that using a gun is “imprecise and boorish,” and that leading a macho lifestyle, combined with fists of fury, is the way to success.
Casey embraces this creed with gusto. Soon he’s standing up to the bullies at work, and earning the beginner’s yellow belt, with black stripe. (The black stripe means he can attend the school’s mysterious night class, which has a whole “Fight Club” vibe going on.)
And then, one night, there’s a German shepherd where his dachshund used to be. That’s how he finally knows this is all out of control.
Writer-director Riley Stearns balances a rich vein of black comedy with sometimes extreme violence. To satirize comical masculinity means showing the absurdity of it, and that requires some ugliness.
Stearns pulls it off. With its combination of poker-faced actors and a clever design scheme, “The Art of Self-Defense” strikes just the right surreal tone.
One key is how unified the cast is: They have the shared earnestness of cult members. Phillip Andre Botello and Steve Terada are ideal as gung-ho students, and David Zellner catches the puppydog personality of the crew’s most vulnerable member.
As the lone female employee at the dojo, Imogen Poots provides a focused alternative to the testosterone. But after a certain point, Alessandro Nivola’s sensei takes over the movie, a formidable presence even when he isn’t on screen.
Nivola’s career has been puzzling — he’s been good without ever quite breaking through. His first impression came in “Face/Off,” where he managed to be distinctive despite the adjacent hyperactivity of Nicolas Cage and John Travolta (not an easy thing to do).
Maybe it’s his generic features, but Nivola has remained a little anonymous since then. Not after this movie, though. The sensei is a gem of controlled acting: Nivola finds all the humor, but he gives the character a weird breeziness, with the hint of anger beneath the surface, all while conveying the guy’s complete and utter insanity.
The sinister plot turns somehow lead to a satisfying ending — possibly even a hopeful one. Using the stealth of martial arts, this is one of the sneakiest movies of the year.
“Art of Self-Defense” (3½ stars)
After a mugging, a weak-willed doormat (Jesse Eisenberg at his jitteriest) enrolls in a karate school, where the imperious sensei (Alessandro Nivola) instills a cartoon version of machismo. This very dark comedy, written and directed by Riley Stearns, is a one-of-a-kind original: a spoof of hyper-masculinity, delivered with black humor and sometimes shocking violence.
Rating: R, for violence, language
Opening Friday: Alderwood, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10