by Patrick Bromley
Writer/director Riley Stearns' The Art of Self-Defense, which played at SXSW a few months back and screened at the Chicago Critics Film Festival just this week, is like Fight Club by way of Jody Hill. It's a dark, dark comedy about masculinity, power, and ego told with a healthy dose of deadpan absurdism, neither as good nor as demented as Observe & Report but definitely belonging in the same conversation.
There's a really interesting tonal thing going on in The Art of Self-Defense that's hard to pinpoint. Writer/director Stearns (who made the excellent drama Faults in 2014) sets the movie in something that approximates our reality but isn't quite, then plays everything straight enough that when it crosses over into its more cartoonish aspects we don't quite notice the leap. The performances, like the material, are heightened but not broad, meaning even the most absurd moments are delivered with straight-faced dispassion. It's a fine line the film walks, one that becomes even more delicate as things turn really dark in the second half, but it's a balance that works.
The Social Network if he took assertiveness training and began to fancy himself something of a tough guy. He's good but predictable, as is Imogen Poots playing the only female at the karate school, who unfortunately has to work twice as hard as every man just to be taken seriously and still can't get made a black belt. The real performance of the movie comes from Alessandro Nivola, an actor who has been working for more than 20 years (he's Pollux Troy, for fuck's sake) and never had a role this good. At any given moment, Sensei can be a fraud, a psychotic, or an idiot, and Nivola seems really enjoy playing both scary and stupid. He's toxic masculinity personified, full of bad ideas and bad advice, all delivered with total sincerity. He's hilarious.