In a documentary talking about his time on Saturday Night Live, Will Ferrell talked about the difference between “funny-strange” and “funny-haha.” He referenced a sketch he did with Molly Shannon called “Dog Show” where two quirky, off-kilter characters would talk about the primped tiny dogs they had while the most awkward sexual tension plays out in real time. Ferrell thought that sketch was more “funny-strange” than “funny-haha,” meaning the humor of that bit came from the unnatural atmosphere and demeanor of the performers rather than any set-up or punch-line. “Funny-strange” has evolved and applied to other bits of acclaimed comedy, ranging from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to Atlanta , The Eric Andre Show and Nathan for You. It’s even found a place in movies like Ingrid Goes West, Thoroughbreds and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. “Funny-strange” can go a long way if there’s enough patience and intriguing subject matter on the execution. What a time it is to make masculinity “funny-strange.”
The Art of Self-Defense follows Casey (Jessie Eisenberg) a 30-something man who has the demeanor of a school boy: mousy, lonely and frightened of anything he can’t see in the dark. After getting mugged by a motorcycle gang one night, Casey becomes more fearful than ever and wants to feel safe again. He then stumbles into a karate class taught by a stern, well-spoken Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) who wants to help Casey become a better man. Casey starts becoming more assertive and confident, even impressing his fellow classmates like Anna (Imogen Poots). But Sensei’s life suggestions become stranger and his presence in Casey’s life becomes more disturbing.
The sensation of “funny-strange” is littered throughout writer/director Riley Stearns’s second feature. At 104 minutes, The Art of Self-Defense starts like a off-beat comedy than slowly but surely morphs into something darker, yet it never loses its tinge of humor. Most of that relies on the consistency of the actors: all robotic and under exaggerated with line deliveries that barely register above a whisper. It’s amusing watching these stoic depictions of machismo and humanity interact with each other like self-righteous aliens discovering new life. It’s punctuated by the timing with little pauses or stretches of silence peppered in between lines. Stearns’s script makes Casey the butt of jokes for the first half of the movie and provides occasional blips of legitimate comedy gags (Casey’s first experience with metal music has classic comedy editing to it).
But while he’s making the audience chuckle, Stearns is patiently creeping up from behind with the film’s dark latter half. While Stearns starts out merely poking at masculine stereotypes (condescension, superiority disguised as kindness, hidden disrespect of women), he pulls out the deep-seeded darkness hidden underneath the basic ideals of manhood. Stearns sees Casey’s need to prove himself as a physical specimen able to challenge any man as a deep-seeded root of obsessive desire that Sensei attempts to exploit. He in fact exploits that in all of his students, turning them into mindless drones chasing validation from an ultra male, or in this case a “master.” And that’s not without mentioning what happens to those who challenge Sensei’s methods or fails to live up to his depiction of strength. Stearns sees masculinity as something that can be warped and manipulated at its most basic level, similar to the color scheme he lays out with the karate belts. It makes up for the flat and straightforward direction he applies.
Most if not all of The Art of Self-Defense relies on the performances and everyone here hits their mark. Not since he donned a hoodie and f*ck-you flip-flops in The Social Network has a role fit Eisenberg so well. His prepubescent pose also makes the scenes of him being assertive all the funnier, with his tucked-in shirt and frowny face making fistacuffs. Everything about Eisenberg’s mannerisms are perfectly timed, from the slightest head-turn to the raising of his voice. It’s unfortunate that Nivola becomes an imposing antagonist as the movie goes on because being an oblivious doofus ultra-male fits him well. His first scene where he literally punches out his plans for the weekend make such a hilarious first impression one wishes he emoted every line like that for the rest of the movie. Still Nivola’s chiseled face, bare facial hair and smooth voice make for a solid example of surface-level masculinity: just noticeable and bland enough to have something hidden underneath. Think Patrick Bateman for the American Eagle catalogue. Though Poots has the least presence in the movie, she still manages to show the damage done by the grossly-macho men she competes with.
As strange as The Art of Self-Defense is executed, its intent is clear. Stearns deconstructs the idea of physical combat as the manliest thing a man can do and looks deeper to find how it can turn men into monsters. It starts as one of the year’s funniest indie comedies and then flips into a dark, grounded thriller about what men do for the sake of outdated ideals. The movie’s penultimate scene gives it great punctuation, mocking the entire premise of an epic showdown and showing a somehow-funnier result. The more its subjects clench and pose, the harder it is not to laugh.