For his first movie as a director, New Girl alum Jake Johnson wisely taps the strengths of a lead actor he knows very well: New Girl alum Jake Johnson. The king of dirtbags you can bring home to mom is expertly (self-)cast as Self Reliance’s Tommy, a down-on-his luck Angeleno who submits to a month-long “game” – as in “Squid,” “The,” or “The Most Dangerous” – with a promised payout of $1 million. It’s a role that allows Johnson to deploy one of the sharpest instruments in his comedic tool chest: A knack for conveying outlandish ideas with utter matter-of-fact sincerity. You can see where this might come in handy, as a lot of the laughs in Self Reliance depend on Tommy explaining to friends, family, or strangers that Andy Samberg (playing himself) invited him for a limo ride, and he’s being hunted for a reality show broadcast on the dark web, and the only thing keeping him safe is being in close proximity to another person – like seated-next-to or sharing-a-bed close.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s directing style mimics a different facet of his onscreen persona: The cool nonchalance that would allow a guy like Tommy to sink into multiple ruts and never look back. Enough of Tommy’s encounters with elaborately costumed would-be killers are treated with a shrug that it makes his predicament feel like a minor inconvenience and not a quest to get (modestly) rich or die trying. Self Reliance never musters the psychological-thriller pressure necessary to make us fear for Tommy’s safety, over-relying on dramatic lighting and the ominous pings and pongs of Dan Romer’s instrumental score to instill a sense of danger. Johnson’s aims for Self Reliance are grand, but he has a firmer grasp on the downtime between attempted murders and the absurdist peeks behind the game’s curtain.
Moments of Absurdity and Lost Momentum
Consider the extended interlude in which Tommy and fellow player (and more?) Maddy (Anna Kendrick) hide out in a motel while running out the clock on Tommy’s 30-day sentence. A montage of their beer-swilling, takeout-eating, and casual-snuggling retreat efficiently communicates their growing bond and echoes previous stitched-together snapshots of Tommy sliding into routine. But save for a delightfully strange encounter with a guy who may or may not be dressed like Mario, the sequence also trades anything resembling suspenseful filmmaking for a laid-back, improv-adjacent approach akin to Johnson and Kendrick’s past collaborator Joe Swanberg. (It even coasts off of some of the easy rapport the duo first struck up in Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies.) It’s a momentum-killing tangent that requires one hell of a contrivance to escape – but it’s also not the last time Self Reliance’s blasé undercurrent takes the wind out of its sails.
It may be more of a scripting problem than a directing one – though it bears mentioning that the director and star is also the screenwriter here. There’s a bewitching, dreamlike texture to Tommy’s induction into the game and its rules, full of labyrinthine hallways, screen-warping wide-angle cinematography, and reality-TV production staff who slip in and out of shadows like sleep paralysis hallucinations. That elliptical loopiness helps gin up conflict between Tommy and his underwritten mother and sisters (played by Nancy Lenehan, Mary Holland, and Emily Hampshire), but it doesn’t extend to the clumsy dialogue in which they tell him he’s delusional. The characters have a bad habit of saying exactly what’s on their minds, or pinpointing exactly what’s troubling Tommy, as if we haven’t been able to pick up from the photo on his nightstand, his lonely perch at a bar, or his nondescript desk job that he’s struggling to overcome a break up and forge connection in a world where the average person is little more than a pawn in the destructive recreational pursuits of the ultra-wealthy.
The Eccentric and the Underdeveloped
It’s all a little undercooked for a modern-day fable that leads with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote and introduces its big-money bloodsport with whimsical picture-book illustrations. When it’s weird, Self Reliance is winningly so: I Think You Should Leave oddball Biff Wiff steals his scenes as Tommy’s initial sidekick, a spacey drifter who compliments Maddy’s mom (Miriam Flynn) on her “delicious” spaghetti, then guilelessly asks for the name of the ubiquitous dish. That Self Reliance doesn’t end the scene on that punchline, but rather has Flynn answer with a curt “spaghetti,” betrays a certain lack of confidence. It’s an all too frequent occurrence in the film, which is genuinely out-there in ways that work in Johnson’s voice, but either can’t fully commit to the bit or reins itself in out of getting too nutty. We’ve already climbed into the limo with Tommy. Self Reliance shouldn’t be so apologetic about where it’s headed.