Since 2009’s Adventureland, it seems like Jesse Eisenberg has just been playing variations of the same character. His characters are usually socially awkward and stutters a lot as he navigates uncomfortable situations. In the beginning of The Art of Self-Defense, it looks like there is just going to be more of the same, but as the movie goes on, it becomes obvious that there is more going on with this character than it originally seems.
Casey Davies (Eisenberg) becomes the victim of a seemingly random mugging one night, which makes him decide it is time for him to be able to better defend himself. After applying for a gun, Casey comes across a local dojo and decides to start taking classes. There, he finds there to be an emphasis on masculinity being the driving force of toughness in the world.
This is where we find the crux of the movie’s main theme. It is largely a critique of toxic masculinity in American culture. And this is why Eisenberg is actually the perfect actor to take on this sort of character. When thinking of an actor who you might classify as masculine, his Zombieland co-star Woody Harrelson, for example, would come to mind long before Eisenberg. You would think of large biceps or someone you might want in a fight. The perception of men in this regard is generally that they should be able to stand up for themselves physically.
The Art of Self-Defense takes a stance that is strongly opposed to this idea. It says that not only is this way of thinking untrue, but it is also dangerous. With its darkly comedic tone and impeccable performances, it manages to make a strong, but subtle case, that this line of thinking is quite dangerous indeed.
Eisenberg is in top form in this movie and gives his best performance since Batman v. Superman (kidding! But it is his best performance since The Social Network). On the surface, the story could seem like a descent into madness a la Breaking Bad or Joker, but in reality it is the story of a man truly discovering who he is and what he can be in the world.
Additionally, a story about the dangers of toxic masculinity wouldn’t work without a standout female performance. The movie’s only female character, Imogen Poots, gives an internal performance that, at its core, really drives the movie.
Oftentimes, a movie structured the way this is can tend to fall apart thematically and plot-wise by the end. But The Art of Self-Defense delivers a perfect punch with its foot at the end, driving home its core ideal.