Riley Stearns’s debut feature Faults was a sinister dark comedy about a huckster deprogrammer facing off against a small, mysterious cult that proved to be too much for his limited skills & outsized hubris. Stearns’s follow-up, The Art of Self-Defense, takes on a much bigger, more widespread cult that often proves too much of an insurmountable burden for us all: toxic masculinity. Jesse Eisenberg stars as what MRA types would describe as a Beta Cuck – an unimposing milquetoast wimp who struggles to assert himself both at work and in his private life. When the poor runt is assaulted in a random act of violence by a gang of macho bullies, he commits full-on to the “self-defense” doctrine of a local strip-mall karate dojo with a newfound religious zeal. The dojo proves to be toxic masculinity in a cult-sized microcosm – incrementally indoctrinating our squirmy protagonist further into the hellish depths of Alpha Male bravado. It’s basically the masc counterbalance to last year’s militarized-feminism satire The Misandrists, except that the humor here is much drier than that film’s penchant for over-the-top camp.
It’s easy to reduce the themes of The Art of Self-Defense to “Toxic masculinity is a cult,” because the film itself speaks only in dry, matter-of-fact statements that leave little room for subtext. Everything is labeled clearly, almost to the level of Sorry To Bother You-style surrealism. Businesses have names like The New Restaurant in Town. When Eisenberg is jumped he’s out buying a brown paper bag labeled “DOG FOOD” in bold block letters. When the mugging is reported on news radio he’s announced as “A 35-Year-Old Dog Owner.” There’s a twinge of Napoleon Dynamite quirk humor to this stilted, deliberately underwritten dialogue, but more importantly it allows the film to make fun of the arbitrary distinctions of traditional masculinity by allowing them to be spelled out plainly without embellishment. Rules about what names, countries, music genres, ways of sitting, and word choices are socially coded as being more masculine or feminine are framed as heightened absurdism here merely by being voiced in plain terms, making for a peculiarly understated version of satire. The movie also gets into the allure of the Alpha Male, incel, MRA mentality for insecure, unconfident men as well. Eisenberg explains, “I’m afraid of other men. They intimidate me. I want to be what intimidates me.” You’re not likely to get a more concise explanation of what attracts young men to the real-life cult of toxic masculinity than that, and explaining everything in expressionless, matter-of-fact terms was the most effective way to get there.
One of the more rewarding aspects of Faults was the tension of its central mystery, which keeps the audience guessing throughout on whether its fictional cult is actually tapping into a sinister supernatural power or is just a brainwashing hoax. Stearns drops that tension here, instead telegraphing the answers to all potential mysteries and possible outcomes long before they arrive. I don’t know if that choice makes for a better movie exactly, but it does free him up to make fun of MRA rhetoric early & often. The hierarchal goings-on of the strip-mall karate dojo were never going to be as rewarding as the satirical lens that frames Maxim Magazine as an extremist propaganda rag, manspreading as a saintly virtue, and being nice to your pet dog as feminine “coddling.” That being said, I can’t guarantee this absurdly dry, expressionless humor will land especially well with every crowd. I was the only person in the audience laughing at my (almost exclusively elderly) weekday screening, which is a shame, since we should all be able to take a step back and laugh at the absurdity of systemically enforced gender traits. It’s absolutely fucking ridiculous, but we rarely consider that perspective in our daily lives because we’re fully submerged in it.
I’d also like to point out how cool it was to hear a song from local metal heroes Thou in a professional feature film, even if their genre was lumped in with the absurdist list of macho gender signifiers.