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The Art of Self-Defense

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
The Art of Self-Defense Movie Poster Image
Quirky, mature comedy tackles the illusion of masculinity.
  • R
  • 2019
  • 104 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Movie is partially about finding your confidence, but this idea goes wildly off the rails. Also delves into meaning of masculinity/"being a man."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Anna is both tougher and cleverer than the men around her, but she still labors under rules invented by men. In general, characters behave rather selfishly and violently, with no consequences. Some bullying.

Violence

Deaths. Martial arts fighting, with punching and bloody faces/wounds. Snapped/broken arm, with blood. Guns shown fairly frequently, with some shooting. Character hangs by noose. Boy knocked unconscious by "sleeper hold." Tooth knocked out. Dead dog. Dog attack.

Sex

Quick shot of full-frontal male nudity. Images of naked female breasts in a magazine. Masturbation. Sex-related talk. Condoms shown.

Language

A few uses of "f--k," "goddamn," "penis."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A character swigs from a bottle at home (drowning sorrows). Small bag of drugs (cocaine?) briefly shown.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Art of Self-Defense is a dark comedy about a timid man (Jesse Eisenberg) learning to find his masculinity -- with unexpected results. Expect some pretty intense martial arts fighting, with lots of blood and broken limbs. You'll also see dead bodies, guns, and shooting. A man is shown hanging from a noose, there's a dead dog, and a boy is knocked unconscious by a "sleeper hold." One scene includes a few seconds of full-frontal male nudity, and a magazine with photos of naked breasts is shown more than once. A character masturbates, and there's some fairly explicit sex-related talk. Language is strong but not frequent, with a few uses of "f--k." The main character swigs from a bottle of liquor when upset, and a small bag of white powder (cocaine?) is shown. This is a very odd movie that will be off-putting to some, but others will find it hilarious -- likely more so on repeated viewings.

User Reviews

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What's the story?

In THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE, Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is a timid accountant whose only friend is a sweet little dachshund. One night, while out buying dog food, Casey is attacked and beaten by a gang of motorcyclists. Afraid of venturing out again at night, Casey tries to buy a gun, but is informed that there's a waiting period. He wanders into a karate class and witnesses the tough Anna (Imogen Poots) teaching a children's class. Casey soon meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and finds himself signing up for regular classes. Over time, he becomes stronger and more confident, though still not fully able to face his fears -- as he discovers when a bully picks on him in a parking lot. Then Sensei invites Casey to join the mysterious "night classes," and everything changes.

Is it any good?

Set in a flat, pale city and spoken in deliberately artificial dialogue, this quirky dark comedy has an unusual rhythm that grows slowly more hilarious, but only for those who manage to tune into it. Given that its moments seem designed to be off-putting on first look -- then funny on subsequent looks --The Art of Self-Defense seems destined to become a cult classic. Written and directed by Riley Stearns, the movie, which is about the myth of masculinity, runs wild with the idea that there is no real, true definition of what's "masculine," and characters who try to nail it down are made to look ridiculous. The idea works (and stays funny) all the way to the end, even as Casey makes his own drastic transformation.

Anna is the wisest addition to the movie; she's a woman who's both tougher and cleverer than the men around her, but she still labors under rules invented by men. She wants to attain the level of black belt, but Sensei continuously denies it, claiming that she's not "man" enough. But the perfectly cast Eisenberg is the movie's key; he fits this role like a comfortable karate gi, fearlessly embracing an inner weakness and making it all the more satisfying when confidence comes shining through. (The Art of Self-Defense would make a great double bill with another excellent Eisenberg black comedy, The Double.) It won't appeal to everyone, but this is a solid pick for those seeking something a little different.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about The Art of Self-Defense's violence. How did it make you feel? Is it funny? Shocking? How did the movie achieve this effect? How does it compare to what you might see in an action movie?

  • What is the movie's message about masculinity and "being a man"? Do you agree?

  • How does the movie view guns? Does the dojo's rule -- "guns are for the weak" -- adhere to the rest of the movie?

  • Anna is strong and smart, but is she a role model?

  • Does the movie seem like a good representation of martial arts and martial arts classes? Why or why not?

Movie details

Themes & Topics

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