Self Reliance Review: Jake Johnsons Off-the-Wall Feature Debut Makes the Case for Human Connection
There are movies made during the pandemic, and movies made because the pandemic, and though debuting director Jake Johnson had been kicking around the idea for “Self Reliance” for years, it took COVID to motivate him to make it. Why? Because the “New Girl” actor’s absurdist concept — about a sad-sack bored enough with his life that he agrees to risk it in a “Most Dangerous Game”-style reality show — assumed both profundity and relevance as soon as the species went into lockdown. Coming up for connection, Johnson delivers a silly and frequently surprising why-we-need-people parable.
The helmer plays Tommy, who’s been a passive bystander in his own life for as long as he can remember, until one day famous dude Andy Samberg (who also happens to be among the film’s producers) randomly pulls up in a stretch limo and offers Tommy a ride. Should he take it? Probably not, but Tommy’s bored enough to accept, agreeing to meet a pair of eccentric producers who inform him that he’s been selected for a chance to win a million dollars. All he has to do is survive for 30 days, while a team of highly trained “hunters” try to take him out.
Like a lo-fi, gore-free “Squid Game,” the competition described in “Self Reliance” is far from cutting-edge entertainment, and Tommy puts a lot of faith in the producers that they won’t try to trick him. The first few days, Tommy studies everyone around him, paranoid that they might be intending to snuff him. Just when he starts to get comfortable, Tommy spots a guy with a rifle in his yard and decides that maybe he should call on his friends and family to protect him. Problem is, the whole idea of the show sounds ridiculous, and nobody believes him — not his mom, not his sisters (Mary Holland and Emily Hampshire) — and the instant they abandon him, he’s vulnerable.
Now, some movies toss out a vaguely “Twilight Zone”-y situation like this and then focus on other things — like action or laughs, possibly even psychology — but Johnson’s clearly a stickler for rules. Personally, I like the logical but unpredictable way his brain works; from his oeuvre, “Self Reliance” is most like oddball comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed,” where the logistics of time-travel become half the joke. As both creator and lead character, he spends most of the movie trying to exploit “the loophole,” a rule that says when Tommy’s in proximity of at least one other person, the hunters can’t touch him. But they didn’t specify the company he keeps.
When his loved ones let him down, Tommy enlists the first sucker he can find: James (Biff Wiff), a good-natured bum who’s easily convinced to serve as Tommy’s constant companion — and who, with his missing front teeth and Salvation-Army-Santa beard, becomes a steady (never mean-spirited) source of laughs. In another clever tactic, Tommy posts a personal ad looking for other contestants, hearing back from Maddy (Anna Kendrick), a perky pathological liar who agrees to his next scheme: If these two agree to stick together, they should be able to avoid assassination, he figures.
Maddy’s more impulsive than Tommy, whose instinct is to lie low. Hers is a fine influence, since what’s the point of protecting your life when you have no life to protect? Making friends with James, spending time with Maddy, Tommy starts to find some kind of purpose to his existence (tellingly, he all but stops going in to his job). Pretty much everyone else thinks he’s crazy — and who can blame them? Tommy is hardly equipped to defend himself in hand-to-hand combat, and if it weren’t for the occasional pep talk from the show’s ninja-like production assistants, the whole thing could be happening in his head.
Let’s say it was. The show’s essentially the antidote for complacency, which has been holding our pathetic hero back from his full potential for years. Johnson gives the character a grudge against his dad and some unresolved questions about the ex-girlfriend who dumped him. Turns out, the game is just the nudge Tommy needs to reengage, and that rule about being safe so long as he’s not alone serves him nicely, since he craves company after two years of self-isolating — which should feel familiar to pretty much everyone emerging from the pandemic.
Operating like a pro with several movies under his belt, Johnson’s put enough thought into things that the movie’s largely free of plot holes. That said, one can’t help imagine a million other directions “Self Reliance” might have gone. For starters, there’s a disappointing lack of danger to his approach. Not that Johnson had to turn this into an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (“The Running Man” comes to mind), but the premise does tease a month of mayhem, only to deliver a meaning-of-friendship comedy — one supported by the Lonely Island trio that’s got a little bit of that “Palm Springs” mojo. Sometimes it takes a drastic situation to throttle folks out of their routines. Here, Tommy needs the push more than he needs the million dollars.
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