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Jesse Eisenberg on his new movie and “aspirational and also absurd” manliness

When you meet him in person, Jesse Eisenberg is not unlike the characters he’s played in movies like Zombieland and The Social Network. The through lines to Eisenberg’s nerdy, phobic zombie-killer Columbus and his Oscar-nominated portrayal of driven, bitter Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg are clearly visible: He’s smart. He talks fast. And he has a lot of ideas he’s eager to discuss.

These traits aren’t very surprising. In addition to being a celebrated actor, Eisenberg is a playwright and a humorist who’s written for the New Yorker and McSweeney’s. When I met him in Manhattan recently to talk about his new movie, The Art of Self-Defense, he told me that he once submitted a headline to the Onion about Vox founder Ezra Klein’s podcast. Eisenberg likes to think, and he likes to process the world through humor and satire.

So he’s a good fit for The Art of Self-Defense, a very dark comedy about toxic masculinity, for lack of a better term. Director and writer Riley Stearns has crafted a layered and unpredictable story about a nondescript office drone named Casey (Eisenberg), who is seemingly randomly assaulted one night by a gang of motorcyclists. The experience leaves him cowering in fear from the world, leading him to tentatively enroll in karate classes at a dojo run by the man he learns to call Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Casey falls under Sensei’s spell, finding purpose and meaning in his previously sad-sack life. But soon, he discovers that there’s a lot more to this dojo than meets the eye.

Jesse Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola in The Art of Self-Defense.


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