Riley Stearns’ “The Art of Self-Defense” plays a little like a “Fight Club” as if conceived by the stoner sensibility of Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski.
Still, that doesn’t describe it well enough. Its characters use a kind of deliberately weird, stilted delivery, saying things that seem either oddly mundane, or oddly out of place — dialogue that may have been written by David Lynch by way of Ed Wood.
It’s foolish to proclaim a new film (screening this week at Alamo Drafthouse New Mission) a potential cult classic, but this one’s pedigree certainly points in that direction. Most viewers won’t get it, but those that tune into it will find it hilarious, and increasingly so, upon repeated viewings.
Like “Fight Club,” it’s about the quest for an ideal masculinity, a quest that goes decidedly, astoundingly sideways, since such a thing is inherently indefinable.
Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast — it’s his most snug-fitting role since “The End of the Tour” or the excellent, little-seen Dostoevskian black comedy “The Double” — as Casey Davies.
Even his name causes people to comment on his lack of masculinity (or to mistake him for a woman).
An accountant by trade, and timid by nature, he has no idea how to speak to people, and his only friend is a sweet little dachshund.
One night, while out to pick up a late-night bag of dog food, he is attacked and severely beaten by several motorcyclists disguised by black helmets.
The incident leaves him even more afraid, so he attempts to buy a gun. After being informed of a waiting period, he finds himself drawn into a nearby karate class, where the fierce Anna (Imogen Poots) teaches a children’s class.
Soon he meets the calm, charismatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and finds himself signing up for classes. He begins to feel more powerful; when he knocks out a fellow student’s tooth, the victim gives him a slo-mo nod of approval, followed by a bloody grin.
Then Sensei invites him to join the “night class,” and everything changes.
“The Art of Self-Defense” is the second feature by writer-director Riley Stearns, whose debut was 2015’s “Faults.” To house his strange dialogue, he creates a spare, pale world, a run-down cityscape that could take place anytime in the last 30 years. (Cell phones are absent, and the only visible computer reveals no clues.)
Characters move through this universe deliberately, unhurriedly. Only Anna, a skilled brown-belt forever denied access to the final black-belt level, acts with relentless urgency. Sensei says privately that she’ll never be man enough to deserve one, but she continues to fight.
Stearns illustrates the slippery definitions and boundaries of masculinity, starting with a ridiculous men’s magazine (which Casey steals and photocopies) that features comparisons of women’s breasts and advertisements for rifles, and continuing with a list of rules posted on the dojo’s wall.
So, watching Casey pursue his ideal persona is simultaneously satisfying and hilarious. His final transformation, a little sudden and a little too complete, might seem ludicrous in a lesser movie, but with this particular tone, it serves to effectively underline Stearns’ themes. And it somehow still remains funny.
Yes, “The Art of Self-Defense” understands that all this stuff, the chasm between who we actually are and who we think we are supposed to be, is, very simply, funny. It manages a good balance and rhythm throughout, even when it turns sinister.
Ultimately, however, it’s not masculinity that matters, but power. It doesn’t take skill and training to obtain power, the movie seems to say in a sober, timely way. It asserts that one who already has powers simply must get others to believe it.
The Art of Self-Defense
Three and a half stars
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, David Zellner
Written and directed by: Riley Stearns
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes