Self Reliance Review

Self Reliance
Self Reliance
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For his first movie as a director, Jake Johnson wisely goes with the star he knows best, his former co-star on New Girl. The lovable dirtbag you can take home to your mother has been perfectly cast as Tommy in Self Reliance, an underprivileged Angeleno who enters into a month-long “game” (like “Squid,” “The,” or “The Most Dangerous”) that will eventually earn him 1 million dollars. In this role, Johnson is able to use one of his best weapons: His ability to present crazy ideas as natural phenomena. One can easily see why this kind of thing is important for Tommy who must explain to friends, family, and strangers how he was invited for a ride with Andy Samberg who plays himself while being hunted for a reality show aired on the dark web and which requires him to always be in contact with another person (close enough to share a bed or sit next to).

Sadly, Johnson’s direction reminds us that there is another side of his onscreen persona too; the relaxedness that lets someone like Tommy fall into many ruts without looking back. Too many run-ins between Tommy and people dressed like assassins are greeted by shrugs such that it feels like an inconvenience rather than serious issues of getting rich modestly or dying trying. Self Reliance does not reach psychological-thriller heights that would make us truly anxious about Tommy’s life resorting instead to dramatic lighting and Dan Romer’s instrumental score with its pings and pongs serving as danger signals. Though lofty, Johnson does better at the non-homicidal moments in Self Reliance up till those absurd glimpses behind the scenes.

Consider their long stay in some motel where they wait out the last days until the end of Tommy’s 30-day sentence together with Maddy (Anna Kendrick). They bond through activities like drinking beer taking food from takeaways and cuddling casually illustrated by a montage suggesting an increasing unity between the two that echoes earlier condensed episodes of Tommy’s settling into routine. Then, except for an extremely weird moment involving someone who might or might not be dressed as Mario, what follows is hardly suspenseful film-making but rather resembles laid-back, barely scripted extensions typical of Joe Swanberg films in which Johnson and Kendrick have previously starred. (In fact, it trades off some of the early chemistry between the pair first discovered in Drinking Buddies) This is a digression that needs to be very awkwardly justified in order to continue—yet is also not the last time Self Reliance’s blasé undercurrent takes the wind out of its sails.

This could be more of a scripting problem rather than concerning the directing – however, the director and star are also the screenwriters. Tommy’s initiation into the game and its rules is filled with winding corridors, wide-angle scenes that distort screens, as well as reality show production workers who slip in and out of shadows like people suffering from sleep paralysis. His elliptical loopiness creates tension between Tommy and his unexplored mother and sisters (Nancy Lenehan, Mary Holland, Emily Hampshire), but it does not translate to their awkward conversation telling him that he hallucinates things. Often, characters say exactly what is on their mind or express what troubles Tommy as if we cannot know these from a photo frame by his bedside table, his sitting lonely at a bar or even at his nondescript desk job which has little else except for that he is trying to get over a breakup while grappling with making connections in a world where an average human being remains nothing more than a pawn in ultra-wealthy destructive fun.

For what it’s worth, however, there’s something slightly incomplete about all this for a modern-day fable that opens with words by Ralph Waldo Emerson and presents its big-money bloodsport through colorful fairytale pictures. And odd is winningly so when Self Reliance gets weird: I Think You Should Leave weirdo Biff Wiff steals every scene he’s in as Tommy’s first partner who ends up being Maddy’s mom (Miriam Flynn)’s dreamer telling her spaghetti smells “delicious” then cluelessly asks for its name. The scene doesn’t end on that punchline though: instead of giving it some oompf, Flynn simply says “spaghetti.” That happens far too often throughout this film though; it is genuinely out-there like many of Johnson’s works but keeps pulling itself back before going too bonkers or fully committing to anything. We’re already in the limo with Tommy. Self-reliance should be more confident about where it’s going.

Final thoughts

Jake Johnson has taken a huge leap by starring in, writing, and directing his first movie: a comedy based on The Most Dangerous Game, where his character cannot be killed as long as he stays close to someone else. This situation offers Johnson many opportunities to capitalize on moments when his characters are being earnestly performed. But safe is still the word here – the script that has too many underlining themes of community and connection and a director who prefers to supervise one-liners than exciting suspense.

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