(director/writer: Riley Stearns; cinematographer: Michael Ragen; editor: Sarah Beth Shapiro; music: Heather McIntosh; cast: Imogen Poots (Anna), Jesse Eisenberg (Casey Davies), Alessandro Nivola (Sensei), Jason Burkey (Alex), Steve Terada (Thomas), David Zellner (Henry), Phillip Andre Bottello (Kennith), CJ Rush (Other Steve); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Cody Ryder, Andrew Kortschak, Stephanie Whonsetler, Walter Kortschak; Bleecker Street; 2019)

Satire of a geek trying to be macho by learning self-defense in the martial arts.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Riley Stearns (“Faults”) aims for dark comedy in this unpredictable Fight Club themed flick, about trying to be ideally masculine. It’s set in an undisclosed time period, which could be 1999–the time slot of Fight Club. It awkwardly (on purpose) films its satire of a geek trying to be macho by learning self-defense in the martial arts.Jesse Eisenberg plays his usual role as a nerd. Because of its off-beat subject matter, the cult film is a difficult one to label and for some a difficult film to like.

Timid, bland, loner bookkeeper Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), living a dull existence with his pet dachshund, is badly beaten when mugged in the street at night after grocery shopping by a motorcycle gang of four, whose faces are hidden by the ir black helmets. Casey flirts with buying a gun but instead locates a local dojo, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), to mentor him in karate. He finds a new enthusiasm for life through the karate teachings of his savvy and charismatic teacher, who tells him “to be more masculine, more dominant, in every aspect of his life.” The newly confident Casey also bonds with the only woman in the school, the brown belt Anna (Imogen Poots).

But things change when Casey stops going to work and attends Sensei’s mysterious night classes. These sessions try to make it possible for the karate students to get back at the world that hurt them. Casey eventually realizes his mentor is an enigmatic and sinister figure–making anti-feminist comments aimed at Anna–and comes to the realization that his instructor is most likely a psychopath.

The droll comedy isn’t for everyone. Either is Eisenberg. But if you can handle its absurdity with a sense of humor and take the karate lessons as the only lessons in the film meant to be taken seriously, I think you will find it to be a pretty good film.

. REVIEWED ON 7/17/2019       GRADE: B .