by Julian Spivey
Director: Jake Johnson
Starring: Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick & Biff Wiff
Rated: R (language)
Runtime: 1 hour & 25 minutes
I’m all in on Jake Johnson and pretty much have been since I first became acquainted with his work on the Fox sitcom “New Girl.” Everything I’ve seen him in – whether television or movie – since then I’ve enjoyed. And it’s not like he’s shown some great range as an actor – he’s pretty much just playing the same version of Jake Johnson every time you see him on screen but as it turns out I enjoy his cantankerous, put-off, sarcastic personality.
Johnson is all in on his latest movie “Self Reliance,” which premiered on Hulu on Friday, January 12, in that he not only is the film’s lead and wrote the script (something he did previously in 2021’s “Ride the Eagle”), but he also makes his directorial debut with the film.
“Self Reliance” isn’t really that original and unique of a story in that we’ve seen versions of this story many times before – a person who is forced to play a game of survival either for money or to remain alive – but it’s almost always told in the form of horror or thriller and not comedy. It’s coming at the topic from a comedic standpoint that makes “Self Reliance” work for me, especially when it’s done through the point of view of your typical Johnson character, this time a man named Tommy who doesn’t have anything going on in his life after breaking up with a long-time girlfriend a year previously.
So, when Tommy is approached by Andy Samberg, hilariously playing himself as a version of himself who desperately needs the money this project offers him, with the proposition of joining this game and if he’s able to win it by staying alive from people hunting him for 30 days he doesn’t have a whole lot to lose, especially when he realizes there’s a pretty big loophole involved – he can only be killed if he’s alone.
He thinks that’s going to be a cinch but try to think about all of the times in your life you’re alone even if you have a happy life with a partner (something he doesn’t have) and a close-knit group of family and friends (something he has but doesn’t genuinely believe the circumstances he’s facing). He can’t even go to the bathroom or go to a different part of a room without the threat of being killed.
Often the funniest parts of “Self Reliance” are when Tommy’s family believe he has lost his ever-loving mind when he’s desperate to be around them all the time as they just can’t fathom he’s actually in danger and the wild and hilarious ways he attempts to convey it, which honestly have you as the audience wondering from time to time if he’s actually in danger or simply imagining it all too.
Tommy hires a homeless man, played by Biff Wiff, to essentially shadow him for the month so he can’t be killed and win the $1 million prize but he’s also put out a Craigslist ad to seek any other playing the game, which is how he meets Anna Kendrick’s Maddy.
It’s this section of the movie where “Self Reliance” transitions a bit to become a rom-com and Johnson and Kendrick have a nice chemistry, but just when you think it’s completely going to go in that direction it pulls back on it and Tommy is once again playing the game alone.
I’m not going to give away the ending to the film, of course, but the film does a good job of keeping you on your toes as to whether or not Tommy is going to succeed. There’s always the chance it could turn darker than the majority of the material and the aforementioned “is he actually crazy” feeling to it all.
“Self Reliance” doesn’t do anything to show off Johnson as a promising director, though there’s also nothing about it that screams this guy shouldn’t do this anymore. But its main attraction is that Johnson knows how to write for himself and keep the audience engaged by simply putting his typical type of character in unique positions.