By Jan Hamilton

Synopsis Source: SXSW Participants

The dark comedy “The Art of Self-Defense” stars Jesse Eisenberg and is set in the world of karate. Eisenberg plays a man who is attacked at random on the street and enlists in a local dojo, led by a charismatic and mysterious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), in an effort to learn how to defend himself.

Self assured, a leader, decisive, Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is none of those things. He’s the definition of a push-over, unable to stand up to the toxic masculinity he runs into every day, especially at his accountant job in a large firm. One evening, for no reason, he is attacked by a group of motor cyclists on his way to the grocery store. They leave him severely beaten. He recuperates in the hospital and later at home on sick leave. While off work, his first thought is to get a gun, but there is a waiting period. He passes a karate dojo near home and stops in to watch. Impressed with what he sees and with the owner, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who is everything that Casey wants to be. Leading
the children’s classes is Anna (Imogen Poots) an attractive and skilled brown belt.

Classes progress, but Casey is disappointed that he hasn’t been able to transfer this new-found competence into his every day life. Sensei explains that confidence is a mind set, not just a set of moves. When Casey finally returns to work, he goes way overboard getting pay back on the jerks who previously made his life miserable. This culminates in him punching his very nice and understanding boss. Fired, he goes to work for the dojo, taking over the accounting work. It is here that he finds out information that will bring a show-down with the Sensei.

This was the funniest film I saw at SXSW, but it is by no means light hearted. The humor is dark and dry, the performances are uniformly great, I highly recommend it.

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