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The “directorial debut of a well-regarded comic actor” subgenre can be a bit of a minefield; for every “Eighth Grade,” there are about a dozen “Fool’s Paradise”s, case studies for how a talented performer’s skills don’t necessarily translate to the director’s chair. Complicating that further is the (hopefully) waning genre of the “LA COVID comedy”—movies typically made by cooped-up LA comedians trying to eke out some profundity about the need for human connection, all filmed in each other’s houses in the early 2020s.
“Self Reliance,” the first film from “New Girl” and “Minx” star Jake Johnson, wasn’t exactly conceived due to COVID—he’d been bandying around the concept for years—but the pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns gave him the perfect opportunity to make it. Blissfully, it overcomes the self-indulgence of some of its “isolation is hard” contemporaries through a heaping helping of Johnson’s keen sense of everyman absurdism.
Johnson, who writes and directs, stars as Tommy, a sad-sack white guy coasting through a middle-aged LA existence. He works a dead-end numbers job at a nondescript office; he’s still reeling from the end of his 23-year relationship with the girl of his dreams (Natalie Morales); his life is a dull routine. So when the actor Andy Samberg (playing himself) pulls up in a limo and asks him to hop in, he shrugs and says yes. (The film is produced by The Lonely Island, by the by.)
Turns out Samberg has been hired to bring Tommy to a remote warehouse where a couple of flaxen-haired Greenlanders have a pitch: He’s to participate in the dark web’s most popular reality TV show, where he must survive 30 days as a group of unseen “Hunters” try to kill him. He’ll be watched and followed at all times for this anonymous audience’s entertainment. The one loophole that will save him: The Hunters can’t risk other people’s lives. So if he’s in close proximity to someone else, he’s safe. If he makes it through the month, a million dollars waits for him on the other side.
Sounds easy, right? He’s just got to be in close contact with other people at all hours of the day. But “Self Reliance” and Johnson posit that it’s not as easy as you’d think, especially for those of us who feel like we live our lives on the sidelines. After a few days of growing paranoia that everyone around him could be one of the killers, he decides to ask his family for help. Trouble is the absurd premise and Tommy’s distance from them over years of bitterness over his father’s (Christopher Lloyd) abandonment make his mother and sisters (Mary Holland and Emily Hampshire) too skeptical to count on.
Instead, Tommy has to turn to strangers to satisfy this now literally existential need for company, which is where “Self Reliance” grasps at its most interesting ideas about human connection and the need to shake ourselves from the familiar. First, he hires a bum off the street he names “James” (“I Think You Should Leave” titan Biff Wiff, all toothless, beardy grin and affable smile) to shadow him. The two hit it off, and their unexpected friendship is easily the film’s most appealing element. (Shades of Nick Miller’s abiding friendship with Tran in “New Girl” abound.) Then, a Craigslist ad seeking out other potential contestants leads him to the effervescent Maddy (Anna Kendrick), a fellow loner seeking a companion to ride out the rest of the competition.
At its essence, “Self Reliance” feels like an allegory for the way many of us had to shake off the cobwebs of social interaction after two years of holing up in our houses. These moments feel didactic but not overplayed, mostly coming through in this middle act when Maddy uses her natural perkiness to push Tommy out of his comfort zone. It’s a little too “Garden State” in places, but Johnson smartly puts a grim enough layer on their dynamic to avoid turning the whole thing into a treacly rom-com.
The problems come when Johnson gets too lost in the logistics of the game itself, clearly having too many ideas about what the contest could actually be or what effect it could have on Tommy, but never fully committing to any of them. Is it a real life-or-death game? If so, there aren’t enough moments of discrete danger, even as Johnson recognizes how hilarious it is to watch him being chased, as if he were starring in “After Hours.” Is it, as another fellow contestant who finds Tommy and Maddy (GaTa) implies, a comedy where people laugh at his expense? Johnson never really decides whether he wants to borrow more from “The Most Dangerous Game” or “The Truman Show,” leaving the resolution in a messy place between satisfyingly grim or sunny.
For a comedy, it also has trouble finding discrete jokes, relying on Johnson’s laconic persona and a few extended ad-lib bits (like a minutes-long riff with a potential assassin about the dramatis personae of the "Super Mario" franchise) or the absurdity of actors like Andy Samberg and Wayne Brady showing up as paid reps for the mysterious show. These moments are welcome but come few and far between, and “Self Reliance” doesn’t have the conviction to fully lean into dramedy in the way this ratio requires.
At varying points through “Self Reliance,” a group of “production assistant ninjas” peek out from the shadows to talk to Tommy when he’s alone, asserting that he’s “one of their favorites” and passing down instructions from production to shake up the formula to keep their audience interested. I imagine it’s what being a reality show contestant—or in Johnson’s case, an actor in the public eye—must feel like, being forced into situations for someone else’s enjoyment.
These ideas feel a bit more interesting than what “Self Reliance” is going for: a comedy about the meaning of connection and friendship. Still, even if it lands in this more pedestrian place, Johnson’s madcap presence on screen keeps the thing afloat. I just hope his clear ambitions get to expand beyond the LA metropolitan area in the future.
On Hulu on Friday, January 12th.