What kind of person would agree to risk death in exchange for a large sum of money? We’ve seen that question answered in one of the world’s most popular TV series, Squid Game. While that show does offer twisted entertainment, it’s most assuredly a drama that is often not terribly pleasant to watch. Actor and comedian Jake Johnson, best known for the television shows New Girl and Minx, makes his feature directorial debut with a far less serious and substantially goofier take on that premise, one that’s full of laughs but, much like its hapless protagonist, doesn’t necessarily know exactly where it’s headed.
Tommy (Johnson) lives with his mother, works a boring office job, and still wakes up every morning to a picture of him and his ex-girlfriend, who abruptly ended their relationship two years ago. So when Andy Samberg pulls up in a limo and offers him the chance of a lifetime, the chance to be a part of something genuinely interesting, he’s down. It’s a game where hunters will try to kill him but can only do so if he’s alone, and if he manages to survive for an entire month, he’ll win $1 million dollars. It sounds easy enough, but it proves more challenging when none of his family members believe that he’s telling the truth and refuse to indulge or protect him. So much for never being alone…
One basic requirement of watching Self Reliance is suspending any and all disbelief. There are holes in its story and numerous moments where characters are too far apart for Tommy to truly be safe, along with some very questionable events that, in reality, would likely trigger direct action from others who know Tommy or run into him. But part of the idea behind this comedy is that he could be making this game up, or merely hallucinating everything. It doesn’t seem to matter to James (Biff Wiff), an affable homeless man who agrees to remain perpetually by Tommy’s side and is eager to go along with whatever he’s told — not only to get some food and lodging and food, but because he’s just agreeable by nature. This storyline is such a stretch that it’s too hard to digest, but at least it yields a few laughs.
Things change when Tommy receives a response to the Craigslist ad he posted looking for a constant companion. Maddy (Anna Kendrick) is considerably cooler about the dangerous situation she suddenly finds herself in, somehow confident that she will remain unharmed. She’s all too willing to partner up with the much more frantic Tommy, and while it’s tough to get a read on her character, Kendrick is so naturally charming and easy to like that the unanswered questions about who she is and where she came from can be mostly forgiven. The same is largely true of Johnson. His brand of comedy fits perfectly here, and following him on this misadventure is something of a blast. The way in which he explains each step of his absurd journey is hilarious, and his continued insistence in the face of mockery only makes it funnier.
The film boasts a talented supporting cast, though they don’t always have enough to do, including Mary Holland and Emily Hampshire as Tommy’s sisters, Daryl J. Johnson as his brother-in-law, and Natalie Morales as his beloved ex. As each new day is introduced with a stark title card and a loud thump, Tommy’s state of mind goes from peaceful to stressed to pure survival mode, which ratchets up the inherent tension of the deadly premise.
Self Reliance works best as a laugh-out-loud comedy when crazy things are happening, but its exploration of the underlying seriousness of it all — while intriguing — isn’t nearly as potent. Johnson does a superb job writing to his strengths as an actor and showing that he’s more than capable of carrying this story on his own. The shortcomings of his first film can be forgiven if audiences go into it with the right attitude, ready to laugh at and along with its hapless protagonist.
Self Reliance had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival.