Jesse Eisenberg Goes Dark in 'The Art of Self-Defense'

Jesse Eisenberg has learned the rules of acting, both in the independent world and within the Hollywood studio system, and found his niche in each arena

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click to enlarge Jesse Eisenberg in "The Art of Self Defense" - Courtesy of Bleecker Street
Courtesy of Bleecker Street
Jesse Eisenberg in "The Art of Self Defense"
For the longest time, I, like many people, operated under the assumption that Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Cera were either the same person (in that we never saw them in the same room/movie together) or, more practically, were brothers from different mothers. In the heyday of quirky independent flicks, they were the absolute definition of indie white male insecurity. They were funny (looking and quick with dark quips) men of inaction (unless they were being used ironically, like Cera in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or Eisenberg in Zombieland) and both were blessed/cursed with a look of geeky intelligence that lent them the ability to see the world’s inherent faults rather than having any actual esoteric knowledge.

But Eisenberg has been able to put these skills to greater use in a wider variety of roles. While he’s made his name on the indie side of the ledger in films like Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale, and Adventureland, Eisenberg has more than flirted with the mainstream, having earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, enjoying small-franchise success in two Now You See Me installments and essaying the role of everyone’s favorite DC comic villain Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

What he has been able to accomplish is fascinating when you consider that Eisenberg has done little to change his indie It Guy persona. He remains nebbish to a fault and doesn’t burrow so deep into a character that he disappears before our eyes. Eisenberg is always Eisenberg.

But he’s able to go dark, as illustrated in The Art of Self-Defense, the second feature from writer-director Riley Stearns (Faults). Eisenberg’s character, Casey, is an accountant who audits the expenses of employees at an anonymous company. He is walking wallpaper in a world of bland backdrops, blending in to the point of near-invisibility. Only his weakness and fear attract attention. Fear, in this case, has killed emotional and psychological growth and development.

Eisenberg plays Casey as an insecure automaton who tries to navigate ways of interacting, but misses the specifics of how to actually live. Casey has listened to French language-learning tapes and becomes fluent, but all this knowledge has done is open him up to ridicule from French-speakers who assume he’s just a stupid American. He’s got a dog, but it’s tough to figure out which one of them is the pet in the relationship.

He reeks of fear, which leads to him being attacked by a roving group of motorcycle bandits who rob and molest individuals late at night. Casey is easy prey, but during his recovery he decides it is time to fight back. First, Casey checks out a gun shop and applies for a handgun. Then he stumbles into a dojo run by the mysterious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who commands complete respect from his students and wields their aggression into a weapon.

Sensei sees Casey’s fear for what it could be: something beautiful and lethal. Casey confides in Sensei that he wants to transform into the very thing that intimidates him. He desires to be a blunt masculine figure. His transformation, while comic, bears some resemblance to the journey of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy. Young Wayne fears bats and the darkness they reside in. It takes a master manipulator to convince Wayne that if he overcomes this fear it can turn into a symbol that strikes the same fear into the heart of others.

The dojo also comes to mirror the spirit and credo of David Fincher’s Fight Club, where fighters surrender to bloodlust to prove themselves to be alive and full of feeling. Casey watches as students draw blood, break bones and knock teeth loose — all while adhering to Sensei’s rules.

Eisenberg has learned the rules of acting, both in the independent world and within the Hollywood studio system, and found his niche in each arena. He appreciates the darkness in this art form and has been able to weaponize it, employing it to steal power. Casey, in The Art of Self-Defense, proves to be a quick study as well. (In theaters) (R) Grade: B+

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