The new Jesse Eisenberg movie “The Art of Self-Defense,” which was filmed in Louisville and premiered here Tuesday night at the Baxter Avenue Theatres, begins with characters who seem so shallow that you’re thinking, well, maybe the filmmakers just asked people on the street what they imagined the dialogue might be for a movie about a wimpy guy who takes up karate so he won’t ever get beat up again.
Then all of a sudden … OUCH! One of those stylish blows and twirly kicks actually connects.
Man, that really hurt.
And so, too, does the story. Because just when we are almost dulled to death with the realization that this is the way karate persons must actually be, a mundane moment squirms very creepily around a corner.
And then another. Campy goes real. And dark. There’s no embroidery on anything. The story is spare. The settings are spare.
“It’s dry,” explains Louisville actor C.J. Rush, who has a minor role in “The Art of Self-Defense” as Other Steve. But Rush, who attended the film debut, says that’s just the style the director ordered.
“Riley Stearns has gotten a lot of influence from other directors who are matter-of-fact, dry,” says Rush. “He’s also a martial artist himself, so he really wanted to make a point about toxic masculinity. And how men are often pushed — and women, too — are pushed to fit gender norms.
“He wanted to state it matter-of-factly without having any comedy or drama attached to it. He wanted the audience to try to figure it out for themselves.”
And that’s possible.
Not so sure about those gender norms, or the inside karate culture. This is the writer’s first (and hopefully last) karate film. But the plot is there, with these normally very forgettable characters suddenly finding themselves enmeshed in a story that picks up depth and arcs nicely to the end.
A yellow belt is something
Eisenberg’s wimpy character is Casey Davies, a name the Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola, says sounds very feminine. Sensei is not into feminine. Sensei is all about image — though sometimes he sounds like he is talking from a video he saw on how to talk like a tough-guy Sensei.
But you make no mistake: This Sensei is very tough. A painting of a mythical “Grand Master” is the only decoration in the gym, which is called a dojo. The Grand Master in the painting is a dead-ringer for Gen. Colin Powell.
But it all rings true for Casey, from the moment he gets his white belt — even if tough girl Anna, played by Imogen Poots, witheringly informs Casey that a white belt is nothing in the belt color rankings.
“White is before color,” she says. “You haven’t earned color yet.”
But Sensei soon awards Casey a yellow belt, which is something. And Casey is in.
And I guess that’s the thing about “The Art of Self-Defense.” When you’re all in, it’s no longer a campy comic book movie. It’s not “Pulp Fiction” does karate.
And we really don’t know how all this is going to work out for Casey and Anna and Sensei. It certainly does not work out well for several people.
Including Casey’s pleasant boss at the office who asks Casey if he would like to come over to his house on the weekend and his wife will cook dinner — and gets a hand strike to the throat for his trouble.
Now showing with ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘The Lion King’
Several minor roles were open for the audition for Rush, who says he zeroed in on Other Steve because Other Steve has better lines than just plain Steve.
Rush delivers his good lines in recurring scenes in the break room of the business where Casey works as a back-cubical accountant. But he says the director also kept the cameras rolling, encouraging the actors to ad-lib lines of their own. And Eisenberg to react. Rush says he will be auditioning again for Stearns’ next movie.
After the opening night show, Rush poses for pics with family and friends. He waves a hand along a lineup of backlit movie posters for each of the films currently showing at Baxter.
“Because there’s not many indie films on here,” says Rush, “ ‘The ‘Art of Self-Defense’ is sharing the billing with a movie about the Beatles, a movie about Elton John. There’s ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Toy Story,’ and two theaters devoted to ‘Spider-Man.’
“And then,” he adds, “there’s a little indie film made in Louisville — with a big star, so it was able to sneak into a Louisville spot. It’s really nice, a big privilege.”
Here’s a trailer for the movie: