“I’m afraid,” says Jesse Eisenberg. “I’m afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of other men. They intimidate me. I wanna be what intimidates me.”
He is, for the record, in character, as Casey, a hapless wimp who is assaulted and hospitalized by a motorcycle gang (while buying food for his weiner dog) and soon finds himself taking ominous “night classes” at a cult-like karate studio in the new black comedy The Art of Self-Defense, which hit theaters in limited release Friday. Casey is confessing his various fears to the man he knows only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), the dojo/cult leader who points out that Casey is an awfully feminine-sounding name. (This turns out to be a significant plot point.)
Soon, our wayward hero is a yellow belt who has a German Shepherd instead of a dachshund, listens to metal instead of his professed favorite genre “adult contemporary,” and has gone from a guy who says “I don’t want any trouble, sir, I’m just a tourist” in French to a guy who says, “Buy the next round of drinks or I will fight you” in German.
It’s that kind of movie, bleak and off-kilter, quite funny and yet militantly unsmiling. It is also, unmistakably, a Jesse Eisenberg experience, in which the 35-year-old actor, playwright, author, and all-around professional speed-talker gets to do and say a whole lot of distinctly Jesse Eisenberg things. “It has a style of comedy that I didn’t even realize I liked until I was doing it,” he tells me, chatting by phone last week. “It’s such an odd style, you know: The characters speak with a strange mixture of sincerity, absurdity, and emotion. They kind of speak like children, but with the confidence and oftentimes with the arrogance of an adult.”
That sounds familiar. You can, in fact, very easily imagine Eisenberg saying, “I wanna be what intimidates me” as Mark Zuckerberg in 2010’s stupendous Facebook origin story The Social Network (still among the best movies of our young, dumb century). Or as Columbus, the beta-male apocalypse survivor in 2009’s goofy action comedy Zombieland. (“I’m sensin’ you’re a bit of a wuss,” observes Woody Harrelson’s character; they’ll both be back in October for the sequel, Zombieland: Double Tap.) Or as David Lipsky, the journalist plainly awed and cowed by rock-star author David Foster Wallace in 2015’s wonky and tender The End of the Tour. Or, hell, even as the oily Lex Luthor in 2016’s super-manly Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Directed by noted jiujitsu enthusiast Riley Stearns as both a parody of and loving tribute to the martial-arts mind-set, The Art of Self-Defense is a smaller, quieter, stranger affair than any of those films, a screwball meditation on toxic masculinity that proves a perfect fit for Eisenberg’s trademark loquacious unease even as it amps up his discomfort, physically and otherwise. He has to try to break a board or two in half, yes. (Eisenberg did three weeks of intensive karate training to prepare.) But he also has to deliver patently ridiculous dialogue (“It is impossible to sprain your wrist playing soft rock” is somehow a climactic line) without winking, or mugging, or otherwise conceding its ridiculousness.
“It’s hard to deliver dialogue where the characters are not self-aware that they’re being funny,” he says. “Because when a character knows that they’re being funny—for example, in a movie like Zombieland, which is a more accessible style of comedy, the characters can kind of laugh at their own jokes, the way a person might laugh at their own jokes if they think it’s funny. But not in a movie like this, where the rules are that no character ever makes a joke. Humor doesn’t exist in the world of the movie. No one ever smiles or laughs. Those are just things that are not part of the people in this movie.”
It’s funnier than it sounds, and more comfortable for Eisenberg than it appears. “On the other hand, the style of acting for me in this movie, although it appears really eccentric and strange, just came very naturally,” he says. “Maybe because I’m eccentric and strange.”
“Dating you is like dating a StairMaster,” observes Mark Zuckerberg’s exasperated girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), and the bravura first scene of The Social Network kicks into overdrive, a breakup that doubles as a verbal massacre. Eisenberg talks in motor-mouthed, fully punctuated paragraphs, his eyes darting from side to side, his vicious insults only amplified by his paralyzing insecurity. He loses the fight, badly. There is more violence here than in the whole of Batman v Superman.
Zuckerberg loses Round 2 of this conflict, also, in which Mara gets to deliver Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s grand thesis on the internet: “You write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that’s what the angry do nowadays.” It sounded a little hectoring in 2010, but online and otherwise, the world is, ah, a bit darker now, and Zuckerberg is, incredibly, even less of a sympathetic figure. Eisenberg plays him as a brilliant emotional troglodyte who may not deserve sympathy and definitely doesn’t want any. “You’re not an asshole, Mark—you’re just trying so hard to be,” is how Rashida Jones, as one of his many lawyers, sums it up. That’s the nicest thing anyone says to anybody.
The Social Network made Eisenberg a very prickly and verbose sort of star (he was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, but lost to Colin Firth in The King’s Speech), an expert at playing super-smart guys who either wish they were way smarter or just think they’re way smarter. He’d built up to it. Eisenberg debuted in the 2002 indie Roger Dodger, a feeble virgin picking up chicks with his buffoonish playboy uncle; he’s hardly more suave in another career highlight, 2009’s Adventureland, a coming-of-age romantic drama elevated by his precisely calibrated discomfort, and also by the fact that the woman he’s dramatically romancing is played by Kristen Stewart.
He’s done tiny labors of love: Eisenberg has favorably compared The Art of Self-Defense to 2007’s The Living Wake, another singular black comedy that finds him playing ukulele and singing and sounding like a more tremulous version of the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. (I tell Eisenberg that you can stream The Living Wake for free on a minor streaming service called Tubi, which he finds very amusing.) He has dabbled in franchises, from Zombieland to the whole Lex Luthor thing to the two-installments-and-counting Now You See Me series, in which extra-brash magicians rob banks and whatnot.
“As an actor,” he says, “I guess I’m less interested in the themes and the kind of academic elements of it, as much as like the visceral experience of a character going through some kind of existential transformation.” He can be smarter, if necessary, than the movie he’s in, without making a big whole pompous deal out of it.
That is rarely necessary: Eisenberg specializes in smart movies, or weird movies, or, preferably, both at once. He has worked with Zack Snyder, David Fincher, Noah Baumbach, Woody Allen, and even Fred Durst, all directors with very specific notions of masculinity. But The Art of Self-Defense is on its own macho planet, vivid in its drabness, grim in its total absurdity. Sensei’s best student is Anna (Imogen Poots), whose very presence vexes the hell out of everybody. “I realize now,” Sensei muses at one point, “that her being a woman will prevent her from ever becoming a man.”
This would be a tricky tone to nail under any circumstances, but the circumstances of simply being alive in the 2010s are beyond belief. “And then this thing happened,” Eisenberg says. “Which is that the story of Harvey Weinstein broke while we were doing the movie, and so then the movie took on this added layer of value.”
The Art of Self-Defense is nothing so pedestrian as a boilerplate Age of Trump parable: Its refusal to wink or break character happily keeps it walled off from the tumultuous and toxic outside world. But that doesn’t mean the outside world doesn’t exist. “Everybody in the cast and crew spent the morning reading about, you know, violence that had been horrifyingly perpetrated against our colleagues in our industry,” Eisenberg says. “And then we’re going to set and filming a movie that talked about misogyny and the way men can be really violent and dangerous, and the way our culture can promote that kind of behavior.”
The movie’s script, tone, and approach didn’t change one iota post-Weinstein scandal; it didn’t have to. “No, because it already felt like we were saying something responsible about it,” he says. “Like conversely, I imagine if you’re doing a movie that kind of treats misogyny in a kind of a casual way or makes light of it, I imagine those sets would have been very strange, you know, on October 6, the day after that came out.” (He’s good with dates, of course.) “But no, it felt like we were already kind of talking about something that now other people were talking about, rather than, you know, talking about something that now is taboo or seen as behind the times.”
There are surface comparisons to Fight Club here: an everyman simp baptized by violence in a heavily stylized environment, and transforming into another person entirely. “I mean, I saw it when I was so young,” Eisenberg says, offering that he hadn’t made the connection until other people pointed it out, and otherwise sidestepping politely. “I think it was the first LaserDisc I saw, which gives you some indication of when I saw it, because LaserDiscs were only out for like a month and a half.”
But Fight Club (directed by Fincher, as was The Social Network) does not have a scene in which our protagonist, after striking an innocent bystander in the throat, delivers a lengthy, wordy monologue that ends with him declaring: “Instead of coming over to your house for dinner with you and your wife this weekend, I think I’ll stay home and masturbate to the thought of your wife wearing her bathing suit at the barbecue.” You can, to his infinite credit, totally imagine Eisenberg saying this: the precise diction, the indignation indistinguishable from the mortification. It plays like an all-caps comment-section rant, and he knew he had deliver it in one foul, ludicrous burst with no pauses, no cutaways, no comic relief.
“So that’s a horrible feeling to have as an actor,” Eisenberg says. “Because you know you have to get it perfect, and you can’t rely on a trick of editing. And I knew if I was at all, you know, kind of finding it funny, it would ruin it. And of course, I think we did like 25 takes or something. I’ve never done that in my life, you know, it’s humiliating, especially on an independent film where every minute costs way more than anybody could afford and so on. That was one of the embarrassing moments.”
The magic trick, as always, is that you’re not embarrassed for him. You’re embarrassed with him.
One incredible thing about The Art of Self-Defense is that it got a theatrical release at all: It’s exactly the sort of odd, niche, uncompromising indie movie that theoretically can’t get near a multiplex in 2019, what with all the superheroes. The theater-vs.-streaming debate does not much concern Eisenberg: “I don’t care at all about that stuff because it doesn’t affect me in any real way,” he says. “But I will say, the people who were distributing this movie, what they told me is they didn’t realize the reaction this movie would have until they watched it in a theater.”
Specifically: “They realized it plays like a kind of raucous comedy, and they didn’t realize it, because there are no comic indicators in the movie,” he says. Get enough people in the room, and the individual discomfort mutates, via strength in numbers, into pure mass joy. “Once people realize what it is,” Eisenberg says, “there’s this collective relief that occurs only in a kind of communal setting.”
And thus does a line like “This is my new dog—we’ve come to an understanding” neatly traverse the boundary between awkward and uproarious. The Art of Self-Defense is not for everybody, but it’s not trying to be, just as Eisenberg himself has never tried to be. But he takes everything seriously without quite taking himself too seriously, treating even silly questions with thoughtfulness, with rigor. He will not, for example, continue studying karate.
“No,” he says. “I’m at the age where if I’m not going to excel at something right away, I cannot put my energy into it. If I were 10 years younger, you know, I might. Ten years ago, I started taking Russian, you know, at the end of my college experience. And like now I just download the Google Translate app and fly to Russia or hire a translator or something like that. So, yeah, I think I’m just at this point in my life, I’m not going to learn anything new, which sounds really kind of, like, nihilistic, but I guess you have to, at some point, accept the truth.”
It is up to you to decide if that’s a very macho thing to say, or the exact opposite. The Art of Self-Defense has no answers for you, about anything, but it’s enjoying posing the questions far more than it lets on. “I’ve been having trouble controlling my emotions lately, sorry,” Casey says at one point. “It’s a very masculine trait,” his sensei replies. “Embrace it.”