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The Art of Self Defense, 2019 – ★★★

“I had a romance novel inside me, but I paid three sailors to beat it out of me with steel pipes” 
~ Patton Oswalt 

Riley Stearns second feature film is a very confident dark comedy about masculinity and the cyclical nature of violence. This is the story of a timid accountant’s journey to become what intimidates him. 

I was impressed with the pacing in this, the film doesn’t waste much time getting into the plot and maintains that tempo throughout. It helps that the dialogue is pointedly matter of fact, showcasing a similar disdain for subtext that can be found in the films of Wes Anderson, or Richard Ayoade. A common trend in films with this kind of writing are characters who lack, or are incapable of, much empathy. I think thats what makes this style compelling as a dark comedy.

I appreciated that much of the comedy was visual, poking fun at the absurdity of hyper masculine culture. Jesse Eisenberg was perfectly cast here, infusing a very vulnerable character with an earnest determination. I wouldn’t call this role much of a departure for him but it was just a great fit. 

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Though I found the plotting to be very efficient, with satisfying setups and payoffs, I found the characters to be less clearly defined. Some of the character motivations seemed inconsistent and revelations where you would expect some kind of emotional response seem to go unaddressed. Admittedly this may have been by design in keeping with the deadpan tone but it kept me from really connecting to the film.

Regardless it is a very impressive second feature with a clear point of view. Yes I saw this film being about toxic masculinity, but more importantly about toxic masculinity being learned. It shows it not as an innate characteristic, but as a response to fear and a brutal society. It’s a comedy about how violence just creates more violence.

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