Self Reliance doesn’t quite hold its momentum all the way through, but it’s a funny, genre-bending satire and a solid directing debut for star Jake Johnson.
Jake Johnson is a very deceptively good actor. Whether he’s in the small indie Safety Not Guaranteed, the acclaimed sitcom New Girl, or the animated spectacle Into the Spiderverse, he brings a surprising layer of depth to characters that you wouldn’t expect much from at a first glance. I also thought he was funny in Jurassic World, but I also like Jurassic World, so what do I know? Regardless, I was very interested to see him star in his own directorial feature, Self Reliance, alongside the equally engaging Anna Kendrick.
Johnson plays Tommy, a man whose life has grown empty and lonely. That is, until he agrees to take part in a peculiar game: hunters will try to kill him for thirty days, and he wins a million dollars if he survives. The loophole is that he can’t be killed when he’s in close proximity to anyone. But with his family not believing the game is real, he joins forces with another participant, Maddy (Kendrick), and the two try to navigate the remainder of the game together.
It’s hard to know what to classify Self Reliance as. It contains prominent elements of satire, romance, drama, thriller, and a little hint of mystery. Outside of maybe satire, the film never plants its foot firmly into any of those realms. Some people will definitely be underwhelmed by this genre-defying mix as a result, but I consider that to be simultaneously one of the best and one of the weakest aspects of Self Reliance. It’s one of the best because Johnson’s made a film that can’t be put into any one box, which constantly keeps you on your toes. Just when you think you have a grasp on what the film’s main purpose is, a new wrinkle comes in to make you second-guess yourself. Setups in which a character is hunted aren’t new, but doing it with this tone and set of stipulations also helps Self Reliance stand out.
Johnson’s more neurotic and nervous Tommy works great opposite Kendrick’s drier and bolder Maddy. The reasons why each of them agreed to play the game in the first place are both really sad and a little funny, and their humorous meetup born out of necessity slowly morphs into one of genuine mutual fondness. It even reaches a point where the game almost becomes a sidenote to one of them, leading to some conflict where you understand where both sides are coming from. Even as individuals, they bring the mix of vulnerability and humor that both actors have pretty much mastered by this point, but in a way that still feels fresh here. Kendrick in particular is pitch-perfect, you might say. (I’m sure no one’s ever made that joke.)
Self Reliance works best as a strange romance with a dark tinge, and for a bulk of its duration, that’s what it is … sort of. Because the film only ever dips its toe in most of the genres it hits upon, a lot of its story beats feel a little undercooked. In general, I’m perfectly okay with this approach. Even though the scenes in which we actually see our characters being hunted are few and far between, the looming threat is constantly felt and addressed. But then the slowly-building romantic tension never really goes that far. It’s mostly subtextual, and in the third act it’s largely abandoned due to one character’s choice that I still don’t completely follow.
The buildup of what’s really behind this game is played up a lot, but in the end, there’s not really the kind of big reveal you’d expect. Which would be fine, except this makes the stranger decisions on behalf of the game’s creators and hunters a little unsatisfying. I’m not left with the kinds of questions that are fun to analyze, more the kinds that make the story not feel fully developed. This includes appearances of certain characters and their links to the game, the way everything is so personalized to Tommy specifically, and even the resolution of the romance. The person who brings Tommy to the start of the game in the first place is Andy Samberg. As in, the actor as himself … without any explanation as to why he would be involved in something like this.
I should also note that, while the cast list boasts names like Samberg, Wayne Brady, and Christopher Lloyd, most of them are in no way major or supporting characters. Some of them only having a single scene in the whole movie. That’s not a mark against the film itself, but I do have to question them being billed over far less popular names that are much more prominent in the film. All of these factors combined, and a lot of these actors really feel like stunt castings. Again, that doesn’t make Self Reliance a lesser film; it should just be noted that an all-star cast shouldn’t be one of the draws towards seeing it.
I understand exactly what Self Reliance is saying, as the film clearly spells that out to an overly simplistic fault. It’s a contemplation of what happens when our lives get stuck in ruts, whether we’re too scared of change or too scared of stability, and how we should go about getting out of them. Overall, it’s a fun, genre-bending satire with plenty of great laughs, engaging interactions, and even a few thrilling moments backed up by Dan Romer’s tense, heavily percussive score. It just feels like the writing needed one or two more revisions to really nail the other ins and outs. I’m on board with seeing another film from Jake Johnson should he choose to write and direct one. Self Reliance definitely feels like a first attempt, but it’s still a good first attempt.
Self Reliance premiered at SXSW 2023 on March 11-17, 2023. Read our SXSW reviews!