Casey, a skinny, nervous nebbish — played, it may be redundant to add, by Jesse Eisenberg — lives alone with his dachshund in a nondescript apartment in an unidentified city. He works in the accounting department of a company that is as generic as everything else in “The Art of Self-Defense,” a wobbly sort-of satire written and directed by Riley Stearns.
The most notable — or, at any rate, a notably puzzling — aspect of Casey’s environment is the technology that seems to place the film in the fast-receding, nostalgia-eligible recent past. Casey watches an old movie on a boxy television set with a fuzzy picture. The answering machine connected to his landline phone clicks on to tell him he has “only one new message.” He gains access to pornography by borrowing a magazine from a co-worker’s desk and photocopying the pages. A crucial plot development will turn on the discovery of a room full of VHS cassettes.
The period details, the nowhere setting and the deadpan delivery of most of the dialogue signal vaguely allegorical intentions. Casey is a milquetoast Everyman, scared of the shadow he is almost too insubstantial to cast. After he is beaten up by marauding motorcyclists, he falls under the sway of a local sensei (Alessandro Nivola), whose soft baritone and hypermasculine message have a transformative effect on Casey.
The vibe is less “Karate Kid” than “Fight Club,” minus the aggressive stylistic poses and the apocalyptic mumbo-jumbo. The sensei’s conception of manhood is bizarre, but not entirely far-fetched, since there are plenty of guys in the real world who believe dumb stuff about what it is to be a guy. He counsels Casey to stop studying French and take up a tougher language, like German. Casey is eager to comply, though he doesn’t entirely embrace the sensei’s ideas about women. There is one in the dojo — which is to say in the movie — a brown belt named Anna, somberly played by Imogen Poots.
Stearns makes a few visual jokes about the homoeroticism latent in the sensei’s manly paradise, where the male karate students give one another naked massages after sparring. He also swats at a few of the themes that flutter about amid the fists and feet. Casey is drawn to the sensei’s disciplined approach to violence and then repelled when he discovers the shabby, brutal cult of personality behind the whispery spirituality. His vacillations follow no particular logic other than the filmmaker’s need to generate narrative surprises that feel superficially provocative. Is Casey mentally disturbed or morally confused, or has he actually — sorry for blowing your mind — figured something out about how the world works?
It turns out not to matter. “The Art of Self-Defense” is like the kid who withdrew from the introductory gender studies class before the midterm to pursue his own theories. And good luck with that. The one halfway-interesting part of this movie is Nivola’s performance, which operates at both a deeper register of seriousness and a higher pitch of comedy than anything else. Is the sensei (his name is a closely guarded secret) a wise man, a sociopath or a complete idiot? That doesn’t really matter either, except insofar as it can be fun to watch this shrewd, charismatic and somehow always underappreciated actor try to convince us that he is all three at once.
The Art of Self-Defense
Rated R. Sure, call it art. Whatever. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.