After listening to a Riley Stearns interview, the writer and director of “The Art of Self-Defense” talk about his favorite comedies, one obscure one that’s also on my list of greats (Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”), I skipped and frolicked to see his film last night at Hollywood 11. Dead pan humor is my cup of tea.
And the beginning held such promise with my laughing out-loud in the first five minutes. And then? And then? And then? (an allusion to another fun comedy “Dude Where’s My Car?”‘s drive thru scene)….Crash. Awkward Record Scratch. Extreme Violence.
Hence, Mr. Stearns with all due respect, you could have substituted three out of the seven graphically violent scenes with your equally smart dialogue by employing me as your script doctor:
1. Casey has a tryst with the grocery clerk who comes on to him after his ‘yellow’ shopping spree. She’s getting off work just as the pick up truck dude accosts him and takes him to her apartment where she seduces him. Casey thinks he’s found a warm genuine girl who comforts him ater the mean pick up car driver, but for comedic purposes, once back at her abode, she’s suddenly an s & m freak. He hides in her bathroom before the actual act, but then faces his fear in the mirror, has a mini recovery to go back out and have a great experience. When he wakes up the next day at her place, he’s alone, a note on the pillow giving him a 2 star lover rating, but that’s there’s potential. He notices now that her apartment’s filled with paintings she’s done. They could even be Klimt paintings to follow your German thread. Casey learns how to paint (poorly, like his karate skills) and tries to present a painting to Sensei who tells him his paintings need to be angrier. Sensei could say: “Casey, the belts were a masculine touch, but paintings, ugh, too feminine, unless of course your Rothko.”
2. In awe of Casey’s transition from Milquetoast to Iron Man, the three macho dudes from Casey’s work place break room try karate, and after one gets pummeled (gently for God’s sake) by Anna, they run home like babies.
3. Add a comic back story to Casey’s wimpiness, a domineering or overly religious mother who shamed him into introversion, who comes in at the end in admiration of Casey’s rise to child karate teacher.
The acting in this movie was perfection: no one but Jesse Eisenberg could have played Casey, Alessandro Nivola was perfection as Sensei and Imogen Poots was terrific as Anna. Again, that’s what makes the reliance on ignorant excessive violence such a shame.
The Act of Self-Defense is worth seeing, especially if you’re a lover of violence. But a better, smarter film could have been made if substantive comedy had been written, instead of gore.