Jesse Eisenberg (left) plays a nebbish and Alessandro Nivola is a deranged karate sensei in “The Art of Self-Defense.” (Bleecker Street)

Jesse Eisenberg (left) plays a nebbish and Alessandro Nivola is a deranged karate sensei in “The Art of Self-Defense.” (Bleecker Street)

Toxic machismo gets a shocking send-up in ‘Art of Self-Defense’

Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola are superb in this dark, violent and highly original film.

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

Talk to us

More in Life

Preston Brust, left, and Chris Lucas of LOCASH perform during CMA Fest 2022 on Thursday, June 8, 2022, at the Chevy Riverfront Stage in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

The country music duo Locash drops by the Angel of the Winds Casino on Saturday. And there’s the Summer Meltdown festival at its new home near Snohomish all weekend.

‘Poco Orange’ Red Hot Poker. (Terra Nova Nurseries)
Warmer weather means brighter, hotter colors in the garden

Here are seven plants that will bring a blazing pop of color to your outdoor spaces.

An easy one-mile loop near the visitor center at Seaquest State Park explores the edge of Silver Lake.
(Scott Hewitt/The Columbian)
Discover seven hidden gems not far from the super slab

Weekend trips: Next time you’re making the I-5 slog toward Oregon, check out some of these parks and preserves just off the freeway corridor.

Caption: Now’s a great time to stock up on free Covid tests available to Washington State residents at:
COVID-19’s behind her except for a nagging cough

But things might have been much different — in a bad way — without testing and vaccines.

The blended-families challenge requires patience, maturity

Don’t expect miracles — it can be rough going for some time. Get professional help if you need it.

Her Turo rental was repossessed with valuable items inside

When Michelle Marshall’s Turo rental gets repossessed, the car-sharing company offers her a partial refund. But what about her son’s expensive epilepsy medication? Is Turo responsible for that?

Lee Oskar and his dog Tex inside his art studio in his home on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Harmonica whiz Lee Oskar is also a pro with a paintbrush

Oskar’s music and art studios are in his Everett home. The former member of the 1970s band War is now 74, and still rocks “Low Rider.”

The 2022 WM Recycle Corps interns are part of WM’s recycling education and outreach team.
WM Recycle Corps interns return after two-year COVID slowdown

The collegiate interns are back in the community to help improve recycling habits and reduce waste.

Caption: At Flight Room in Lynnwood, aerial fitness poses like “vampire” use every muscle in your body.
Fitness takes flight at new aerial studio in Lynnwood

Jennifer Bardsley finds benefits and “silk kisses” from doing aerial yoga at Lynnwood studio.

Photo Caption: This carved shelf brought $2,500 at New Haven Auctions. Decorations and symbols associated with the Odd Fellows add to its appeal.
Odd Fellows iconography adds to this carved shelf’s value

Fun fact: The Odd Fellows is believed to have originated in medieval trade guilds, with “odd fellow” meaning someone who did odd jobs for a living.

The Limelight Prime Panicle Hydrangea. (Proven Winners)
3 new “pee gee” hydrangeas for gardeners to salivate over

These new shrubs boast better flower color and, in some cases, more compact forms that fit better in smaller gardens.

agave-leaf sea holly (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: agave-leaf sea holly

The distinctive foliage perennial adds architectural structure to the garden, and is drought-tolerant.