The way the characters speak in Stearns' script may require some to get used to it, like Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, playing Anna, her only classmate, enunciating their emotions and motivations clearly and directly, with hardly more emotion than the basic characterizations and personality quirks in their early scenes. But simple is exactly what Stearns is trying to do. The drought of the film is relevant for his particular sense of humor. Like Office Space or The Lobster, the art of self-defense uses the miniscule satisfaction of senseless achievements, such as the transition to the yellow belt in its thirties, to satirize the smallness of everyday life.
This helps Nivola to fully understand the excessive behavior of the Sensei, cutting through Stearns' rather understated construction of scenes with an absolutely hilarious and serious absurdity (he says at one point in a monotonous tone, with no hint of irony, that he has placed his forefinger on the forehead of his former master). However, his goal in the story is also to show us why Stearns chose to tell this story in 2019. As Sensei gets more and more involved in Casey's personal life, he encourages every aspect to be extremely masculine . And so, Casey starts rocking into heavy metal, refuses to pet and pamper his dog, and shouts to his colleagues to pump with him. At the same time, Anna, clearly ahead of the class, is always denied a deserved rise to the black belt because, as Sensei says, women are naturally weaker than men.
This makes the Art of Self-Defense a critique of toxic masculinity stated as clearly as possible, practically designed to provoke those who subscribe. Once this becomes clear, the setting and the whole plot begin to feel more introspective. The twists that follow are straight out of a kung fu movie, with betrayals, challenges and blood, all for one purpose: to make men feel like men. But what Casey can not see, what Anna can do, at least partially, is the way all this so-called force weakens them. Again, these are middle-aged men in contemporary Central America, not the samurai of feudal Japan.
And yet, Stearns' script spells out his themes so directly that the film does not leave much to chew once finished. The art of self defense at the base is a story about the dangers of a violent state of mind, mainly those typically associated with men. In today's world, there is a lot to say about it, but Stearns stops just before saying something new. Instead, he repeats the remarks made before as creatively and entertainingly as possible.
There are so many fine comic details, such as the decoration of the sharp decor in Casey's house and the Sensei dojo, that help to fully realize Stearns' vision. Eisenberg is very useful for guiding us in this vision, but it's really Poots and Nivola who finally realize the unique personality of the film. Yet the undeniable originality of the film comes from Stearns' spirit. His hilarious, and sometimes rather tense, criticism of the notion that physical strength and power are intrinsically linked in today's world boasts brutal honesty that few filmmakers would have dared to plunge into.