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Short Take: The Art of Self-Defense

(Riley Stearns; USA, Bleecker Street; Opening July 12)

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a gangly bundle of insecurity, is violently attacked by masked motorcyclists while walking home one evening. Afterward, he’s too afraid to leave the house for work, and considers buying a handgun—until he walks by a karate dojo and falls in with its charismatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and ragtag group of male rejects. Although cordial, their shared pent-up aggression explodes in violent sparring practices.

With this followup to 2014’s Faults, Riley Stearns strives for a dark comedy intoned in Yorgos Lanthimos deadpan. He draws queasy humor from Casey’s cowardice—he custom-orders a yellow leather belt, matching his karate rank, to stay emboldened in the “real world”—and through the dojo, he satirizes toxic masculinity’s cultlike pathology of power. Sensei, evoking a Tyler Durden for the Jordan Peterson era, starts to groom Casey in his image while reserving a requisite contempt for Anna (Imogen Poots), the children’s karate instructor and, as the film’s sole significant female character, the punching bag for his generalized sexism.

Casey lives in nondescript suburbia, surrounded by analog technology and generic branding out of Repo Man. Instead of pushing the absurdity of his uncanny valley universe as Lanthimos might have, Stearns succumbs to its lack of specificity. He jokes flatly about the familiar silliness of hypermasculinity while shortchanging his angle on group psychology, more tellingly pathetic and disturbing.