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The Art of Self-Defense functions like a 20-year anniversary remake of Fight Club

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And its take on masculinity, entitlement, and loneliness sheds light on how Fight Club works

Photo: Bleecker Street

In Riley Stearns’ new movie The Art of Self-Defense, a lonely, mild-mannered office drone has an experience that forces him to reevaluate his lowly place in a supposedly civilized society. He joins a group with a charismatic leader who encourages a reclamation of traditional masculinity built around boundary-breaking physical conflict. He meets a similarly minded woman and develops an unconventional, not-quite-romantic relationship with her. Eventually, he comes to suspect that the charismatic leader is using dangerous, extremist methods to further a megalomaniacal cause, leading to a final showdown. If this description sounds familiar without knowing anything more about this new film, you may have seen the movie Fight Club, which turns 20 this fall. At times, The Art of Self-Defense feels like an unofficial remake.

Stearns doesn’t explicitly position his new film as an answer to David Fincher’s cultishly beloved Chuck Palahniuk adaptation. For one thing, its gathering of desperate, lonely men is far more socially acceptable than the bare-knuckle brawling group in Fight Club. In Art of Self-Defense, the meek Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) simply joins a karate class at a local dojo, which is presided over by a quietly domineering sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Stearns also takes a more hushed, deadpan, small-scale approach to the material. He doesn’t ape Fincher’s wild stylizations, which include sardonic asides to the camera, dream-world hallucinations (like a detailed visualization of a plane crash), and heavy use of computer-animated procedural close-ups, like zooming into the guts of a stove to show the cause of an explosion.

But while he eschews flashy techniques, Stearns explores similar territory. He’s studying a man who has become frustrated by the fear and anxiety that accompanied his careful attempts to abide by society’s rules. Casey, like the unnamed narrator played by Edward Norton in Fight Club, lives sequestered from physical violence. Once it enters his world — through an assault on the street, rather than Norton’s what-the-hell initial dust-up with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) — he wants to participate. He’s eager to finally feel like a real man.

The two decades since Fight Club came out have somehow made Fincher’s film look both dated and prescient. 1999 was long enough ago — before the Bush, Obama, or Trump presidencies; before 9/11; before conversations about white fragility were so frequent or pointed — that it now seems downright quaint that so many movies of that era agonized so thoroughly over the dilemmas of straight, white, well-off men. (To viewers who don’t fit those categories — and empathetic viewers who do — “quaint” may not cover it; “eye-rollingly ridiculous” might.) Movies like Falling Down, Fight Club, and American Beauty have satirical dimensions and ultimately may not endorse their characters’ most selfish or entitled views. But they do share an implicit understanding that their protagonists’ feelings of alienation are well-founded.

Photo: Bleecker Street

In Art of Self-Defense, Kearns clearly understands that there’s something retrograde about that concern. Maybe that’s why he set it sometime close to Fight Club’s release. Just as Fincher’s film doesn’t name its primary setting, Self-Defense doesn’t offer a particular place or period. But judging by its computers (present, but not ubiquitous, and clunky), phones (answering machines are still around), and methods of congregation (in person; no Reddit forums or app-based group chats), it’s probably happening sometime in the back half of the ’90s. It’s a half-savvy, half-suspect way of making the sensei’s regressive views on gender and masculinity more believable, even as they’re issued with a cartoonish lack of subtlety.

The film’s deadpan style serves this purpose, too, foregrounding its absurdity. After the initial controversy about Fight Club’s violence and irreverence faded, it gained an appreciative following and became a case study in possible misinterpretation. The movie’s big twist about Tyler Durden’s identity works as a reversal in part because it coincides with the Narrator realizing how far “Tyler” has hardened his ethos into all-out fascism. For the first half of the movie, Tyler Durden can be read as a charismatic, funny badass. He’s constantly ready with a bromide about the glories of “hitting bottom” in a fearful, consumerist society — one he views as emasculating, rather than, say, inherently misogynistic. The revelation about him sharing a body and brain space with the Narrator is unnerving because, by that point in the film, he’s also more or less the bad guy.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Rewatching Fight Club in 2019, that reversal feels less revelatory, not least because Brad Pitt has become a stronger, quieter actor since then, throwing the intentional shallowness of his Tyler Durden into sharper relief. (It’s also possible that 20 years of life experience would make plenty of viewers less enamored of Durden’s proto-men’s rights stylings.) But given what we now know about incels, MRAs, and the increasing popularity of open fascism, it’s still easy to see how a certain audience will always be taken in by Palahniuk’s catchphrase-y, self-aggrandizing rhetoric.

This could be why The Art of Self-Defense lacks a Tyler Durden character. Nivola’s unnamed sensei has a certain intense charisma, but the movie observes it from a remove. Though Casey is a clear figure of audience identification and his seduction into the sensei’s world of steely masculinity and brute confidence is understandable, the sensei always looks a little silly from the outside. It’s hard to imagine anyone but the most deluded audience member ever mistaking him for a genuine iconoclast in the Tyler Durden vein. The character is slightly more dignified, and certainly more credibly sinister, than, say, Danny McBride’s character in the cringe comedy The Foot Fist Way. But he’s not far off.

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Is this the future of satirizing toxic masculinity? Making sure that as many audience members as possible will understand that a toxic male character is meant to be foolish so they don’t ever get the wrong idea? (It is possible to get some kind of wrong idea about Nivola’s character, of course — Art of Self Defense has some sharp twists and turns — but Stearns never lets him read as particularly heroic.) Debate rages on over whether it’s better to explore the incel mentality in uncomfortable depth or stop giving aggrieved men so much attention. As recently as this spring, Under the Silver Lake was criticized both for glorifying its dirtbag male protagonist and for hammering home his toxicity too hard and too early.

But as similar as The Art of Self-Defense is to Fight Club in its aims and overall form, there’s no creative reason for it to do the same thing as its beloved predecessor, and it would be absurd to pretend nothing has changed in the 20 years since Fincher’s film. For that matter, Fight Club isn’t an unimpeachable work of satire. Though its narrator ultimately rejects Tyler’s reductive, destructive view of the world, his enhanced sense of empathy amounts to being less of a jerk to the one woman in his life at the last minute. The movie still springs from Tyler’s point of view, however roundabout a route it takes to get there. This makes the multiple-personality twist a rare instance of that trope being genuinely clever and thematically rich, even for those who see it coming.

Nothing in The Art of Self-Defense is so knotty, which makes it both a cleaner movie and a less interesting one. There’s less room for disastrous misinterpretation because it barely requires interpretation at all; superficially, the movie is disturbing, but its only real ambiguities are tangential mysteries over what it really thinks about gun culture. (The sensei, the movie’s scariest and most adamantly macho character, abhors them.) Stearns has made an exacting, funny, well-acted, and sometimes bruising film, but it’s also one that feels like a closed system, unlikely to warp anyone’s thinking or produce a checkered, hotly debated legacy. Fight Club’s moment may have passed, but the movie itself lingers like a scar. It may take another 20 years to figure out whether that’s better or worse.