SXSW2023 Review: Self Reliance

It’s hard not to root for Jake Johnson. Whether it’s the lovably goofy characters he plays or the general air of affability he gives off, it’s understandable how Johnson has earned his cult status. So when I heard he was making his directorial debut, I was ecstatic to see how he might translate his endearing schtick on screen. The answer it seems is pretty great in theory and just alright in execution, offering a film that’s certainly entertaining but ultimately more tantalizing than anything.

In “Self Reliance,” Johnson plays Tommy – a 30 something whose life is stuck in a rut. Reeling from an abrupt breakup with his girlfriend of 20+ years, Tommy prefers to keep his life safe and routine – and largely isolated. As you might’ve guessed it, he lives with his mother and his life doesn’t really seem to be moving forward anytime soon. One day, out of the blue, a limo pulls up and – hilariously – Andy Samberg offers him the chance to shake up his life by agreeing to participate in a reality tv game show on the dark web. Not Andy Samberg playing someone, mind you, but Andy Samberg himself. You see, the game involves allowing an international group of “hunters” to hunt you for 30 days straight, all of whom are disguised as various celebrities so that no one could ever possibly believe that you’re being stalked by the likes of Michael Jackson or Sinbad. Tommy, of course, takes the challenge to not only shake up his dull life but because he thinks he’s found a loophole: the hunters can’t harm you if you’re within striking distance of another person. All Tommy needs to do is to hang out with his loved ones for 30 days – something he hasn’t done seemingly in years.

Naturally, no one in his family believes him and Tommy is forced to befriend an unhoused gentleman (played the ever entertaining Biff Wiff) who’s willing to stick around in exchange for a good time. As his paranoia grows, Tommy tries to find out some information online and befriends Maddy (Anna Kendrick), a woman who is seemingly also playing the game. As you might imagine, their budding friendship helps Tommy work through his romantic hang-ups and something of a romance develops. This relationship, and the twist that’s eventually revealed at the end, leave the audience realizing that a much more interesting movie might exist if it was just given room to breath.

At under 90 minutes, however, this fantastic premise feels far too rushed to reach its potential. There are moments of great humor as well as moments of high anxiety as Tommy’s world unravels for fear of celebrity lookalikes but, while its entertaining to be whisked away with it all, none of it never really means as much as it could. After the film, Johnson spoke about how this was his pandemic film, born from a desire to be with people once again. In that, you can see the seed of a truly affecting movie that contemplates the way our loved ones, our neighbors, truly form the basis of our whole world – but the movie is more interested in finding the next laugh rather than finding its own heart.

Having said that, for a debut, it’s clear that Johnson has some talent. Produced by Lonely Island, the encouragement of his collaborators obviously help Johnson really lean into his comedic voice which is, again, infectiously affable. As a writer, he probably needs to gives himself a bit more breathing room but its clear that he’s got the talent to give directing another go. Despite this one’s flaws, I’m certainly still on board with whatever he comes up with next.