A lot of filmmakers at South by Southwest hatched their first movie during the pandemic. Jake Johnson is no exception. With Self Reliance, the actor’s shift into directing is the kind of quarantine-brained debut you’d expect from a Joe Swanberg day player with guidance from the Lonely Island producing team. It’s got a shaggy and conversational comedic style, a few engaging co-stars capable of improvising, and a surreal scenario for its everyman’s life. You kind of know what you’re getting into, and Johnson happily meets expectations.
He plays Tommy, living with his mom and still reeling from a breakup two years earlier. But his daily routine––going to a mind-numbing computer job and slugging beer at the same bar––gets interrupted when Andy Samberg (the actual Andy Samberg) pulls up in a limo and offers him a chance to change his life. Without much to lose, Tommy hops in and is taken to an abandoned warehouse, where two old Swedish men invite him to take part in a dark web reality game show. The parameters? If Tommy can avoid being killed by a bunch of bounty hunters, he’ll win a million dollars. The only catch––the one that’s giving his schlubby self a shot––is that as long as he’s within striking distance of someone else, he can’t be killed.
When he agrees and returns home, his mom and sisters can’t believe the new stakes of his life, let alone that he’d met Samberg. They quickly refuse to let Tommy shadow them 24/7, especially after his attempt to sit beside his brother-in-law on the toilet late at night. So he reverts to other willing volunteers, including a jovial unhoused man (a scene-stealing Biff Wiff) and eventually Maddy (Anna Kendrick), another game participant who, after answering Tommy’s Craigslist ad, decides to team up and fend off lurking killers with him. Along the way, more oddities interject––a Mario-looking motel manager, the rapper GaTa, Wayne Brady, and Christopher Lloyd as Tommy’s absent father.
In a post-screening discussion, Johnson said he became inspired by absurdist Japanese reality shows, which influenced the comical and suspenseful tones of Tommy’s scenario. One minute he’s fighting off people to stay alive; the next he’s being visited in bed by the game’s ninja-like production assistants whispering clues to help him avoid death. When Maddy enters the fray the movie merges into the rom-com lane, a necessary wrinkle that livens up the countdown thanks to her and Johnson’s natural, flirty interplay. For a moment it feels like the pair have found a cheat code––they’ll never leave each other’s side until the big payout––and Tommy gets over his hangups in the process.
If it feels a bit like Palm Springs with its existential themes, romantic arc, and surrealist twist, that’s because they both share Samberg’s production team. But Self Reliance seems reluctant to embrace the true conceit of its own imagination. This isn’t exactly the fully immersive thrill ride we saw in David Fincher’s The Game 25 years ago. Over the 30 days he must stay alive, there aren’t many close calls or hidden assassins that make this heightened game show feel as electric as Tommy’s own paranoia suggests. And by the climax, when Johnson pivots away from his romantic subplot, the story’s logic starts to crumble, softening a buildup that warranted more fireworks and intrigue.
Still, this is a sure-handed debut with a reliable group of actors. At a certain point I couldn’t help but watch whatever Wiff was doing, even in the background of scenes. Despite the size of his role, his small tics and line readings add life to the movie’s primary, ordinary concerns that Johnson only makes overt: it’s scary being alone, and sometimes it’s scarier to know the reasons why you’re alone. But Johnson has an unnerving way of making you care about the messy people he plays. Tommy might be a loser, but you sure want him to win.
Self Reliance premiered at SXSW 2023.