In Riley Stearns’ new movie The Art of Self-Defense, a lonely, mild-mannered office drone has an experience that forces him to reevaluate his lowly place in a supposedly civilized society. He joins a group with a charismatic leader who encourages a reclamation of traditional masculinity built around boundary-breaking physical conflict. He meets a similarly minded woman and develops an unconventional, not-quite-romantic relationship with her. Eventually, he comes to suspect that the charismatic leader is using dangerous, extremist methods to further a megalomaniacal cause, leading to a final showdown. If this description sounds familiar without knowing anything more about this new film, you may have seen the movie Fight Club, which turns 20 this fall. At times, The Art of Self-Defense feels like an unofficial remake.

Stearns doesn’t explicitly position his new film as an answer to David Fincher’s cultishly beloved Chuck Palahniuk adaptation. For one thing, its gathering of desperate, lonely men is far more socially acceptable than the bare-knuckle brawling group in Fight Club. In Art of Self-Defense, the meek Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) simply joins a karate class at a local dojo, which is presided over by a quietly domineering sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Stearns also takes a more hushed, deadpan, small-scale approach to the material. He doesn’t ape Fincher’s wild stylizations, which include sardonic asides to the camera, dream-world hallucinations (like a detailed visualization of a plane crash), and heavy use of computer-animated procedural close-ups, like zooming into the guts of a stove to show the cause of an explosion.

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