A dark comedy that pitches itself haplessly into the black, “The Art of Self-Defense” showcases a number of notable talents as they lose their way.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey, a quintessential modern milquetoast. He has a dull cubicle job, zero social skills, and, when he is mugged one night by masked, motorcycle-riding thugs, he curls even further into a fetal ball of timidity. Casey is possibly on the spectrum, but one of the problems with “The Art of Self-Defense” is that all the other characters seem to be, too.
Traumatized, Casey is on the verge of buying a gun when he passes by and, on a whim, enters a karate dojo run by the super-macho Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), one of whose posted rules is “Guns are for the weak.” Some people are born cult leaders; Sensei is one of these. Some are born to be enthusiastic drinkers of the Kool-Aid. Casey, it turns out, is one of these.
Written and directed by Riley Stearns, “The Art of Self-Defense” aspires to Kafkaesque farce, the impressionable hero progressing step by step until he’s well over his head in dangerous doings. It starts with Sensei guiding Casey on matters of manly dress, food, comportment, and choice of vacation spot (tough Russia, not wimpy France). Soon the pupil is invited to secret evening sessions with other true believers, like Henry (David Zellner). Thomas (Steve Terada), and Anna (Imogen Poots), not all of whom will make it out of the movie in one piece.
Zellner is a producer of this film as well, not to mention a co-director, with his brother Nathan, of similarly twisted fables (“Kimiko, the Treasure Hunter,” “Damsel”). “The Art of Self Defense” is as interested in deadpan eccentricity as those movies, but it suffers from a minuscule budget and an inability to settle on a consistent tone, with the result that developments meant to be increasingly outrageous are simply impossible to believe. By the time Casey has followed his master and fellow minions into full-blown homicidal behavior, many viewers may have checked out.
The trick with a movie like this is to boil the audience like the proverbial frog, turning up the heat and keeping us on the protagonist’s side until it’s too late for both him and us. “The Art of Self-Defense,” by contrast, scalds us early and often and thus implicates no one but its own thinly drawn characters. Mannered and remote, the movie throws a lot of punches but hardly ever connects.
THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE
Written and directed by Riley Stearns. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Allesandro Nivola, Imogen Poots. At Kendall Square and Embassy Waltham. 104 minutes. R (violence, sexual content, graphic nudity, language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.