Director: Jake Johnson
Writer: Jake Johnson
Stars: Jake Johnson, Andy Samberg, Anna Kendrick
Synopsis: Given the opportunity to participate in a life or death reality game show, one man discovers there’s a lot to live for.
Jake Johnson’s directorial debut begins with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay ‘Self Reliance’ – a piece penned about individualism in 1840. The basic gist is that a man needs to get up and do things and stop living in conformity and the past. For Johnson’s character, Thomas Walcott; a man reaching middle age with a seemingly pointless job, mourning a relationship that ended years ago, and living with his Mom the only thing he can rely on is that all his days will be essentially the same ad infinitum.
Every day he wakes up at the same time, goes to work, and ponders about knocking on the door of his now married ex-girlfriend Theresa (Natalie Mendoza) to finally find out why she broke up with him after twenty-three years. If Tommy had any life aspirations, they long ago died on the vine due to some unresolved issues leaving him in a state of near permanent personal entropy.
Enter “Andy Samberg” (Andy Samberg) in a limousine who approaches Tommy and asks him if he wants to participate in a “dark web” reality show. Tommy doesn’t really know what’s going on, but at least something is. Before he knows it he is in a warehouse with two bizarre Greenlandic men and agreeing to participate in a game where he agrees to be hunted. The loophole is that the hunters (who can be anyone or anywhere) can’t attack if he’s within hand’s distance of another person. Survive thirty days and win a million.
When he goes home to announce this to his family with a, “You’ll never believe what happened to me today,” the natural answer is they don’t. Why, asks his mother (Nancy Lenehan), would ‘Sandy Amberg’ want to have anything to do with him? His sisters (played wonderfully by Mary Holland and Emily Hampshire) alternate between amused and irritated with Tommy’s antics. His brother-in-law, Malcolm (Daryl J. Johnson) tries to go with the flow. Everyone is concerned he might be having a mental breakdown – and the film hints he possibly is. None of them want to be his shadow person (for good reason as Malcolm will discover) so Tommy has to look elsewhere.
Tommy finds an unhoused guy he calls “James” (Biff Wiff) and moves him into his mother’s house. From there, James and Tommy become allies in the increasing absurdity of Tommy’s life. He tries to find other ‘players’ and is contacted by Maddy (Anna Kendrick), a woman living with her mother and running a quirky Etsy store selling… well… whatever quirky Etsy stores sell. Maddy and Tommy agree after some negotiation to be each other’s buddies in the game; and for the first time in a long time Tommy begins to make deep connections with other people while dodging assassins dressed as Michael Jackson, Mario, and Ellen DeGeneres. Oh, and there are camera ninjas recording everything.
Johnson is balancing a lot of spinning plates with Self Reliance. It’s part absurdist comedy, part romance, part sincere look into loneliness and the social atomization of contemporary life, and part action film. So many genres shouldn’t work together – and for the most part they do until they don’t. Johnson and Kendrick are both charming actors and they have a natural rapport (this isn’t the first time they’ve worked together – they were also in Drinking Buddies). Their budding romance is one of the highlights of the film. Two people who are disconnected from life coming together for a grand, albeit potentially deadly adventure and “fucking living” because it could be their last day on Earth.
Just as important is Tommy’s relationship with the near unflappable James and his descent into James’ reality of living precariously without guaranteed comfort, meals, clothing, or housing. Tommy chose to live in the game for thirty days – James, through whatever circumstances, lives an imperilled existence every day.
There are some inventive twists and turns and brilliant cameos from people such as Wayne Brady, GaTa, and Christopher Lloyd as Tommy’s absent father who walked out on his family with seemingly no regret.
The pop culture references are terrific (and specific), and Johnson really puts everything he has into his performance as the internally wounded and very much externally wounded Tommy. There is a superb scene when he finally knocks on Theresa’s door and she tells him that she did tell him almost every day why they broke up, he just didn’t listen. He didn’t want to do anything, he didn’t want to change his routine, and he didn’t want to take chances.
Self Reliance is a frenetic story of healing. Tommy has to put his life and sanity on the line to finally “Win the game.” The film is a little overcrowded in places and when it reaches the third act the audience has already understood what the film is saying about taking risks and avoiding becoming trapped in complacency. It might also seem to be a little on the nose to have a middle-aged-guy coming-of-age story – but permanent adolescence isn’t as uncommon in society as people would like to believe. We do live saturated by nostalgia and a sense that somehow things were better when life was easier when we were young. Self Reliance actively resists and parodies that notion.
A good companion piece to Self Reliance is Mel Eslyn’s Biosphere (two guys at the end of the world arguing about Mario Kart). It is also fascinating to draw the Venn diagram of Jake Johnson performances which lead to some of his best in Safety Not Guaranteed with Mark Duplass. Self Reliance might not entirely work while it’s running at speed and occasionally stopping to catch its breath at some of its lesser moments. But as a first feature it is gleefully silly and entirely sincere. There is much more to love in Self Reliance than there is to criticize. Surely, everyone these days is also afraid of Ellen DeGeneres?