Stories centered around death games, where a character or a bunch of characters, knowingly or unknowingly, find themselves in a fight to the death that is probably being treated like a reality show, are pretty fun. The first one that comes to mind is David Fincher’s The Game. Then there’s Guns Akimbo, Squid Game, Battle Royale (and all of its clones), the Saw movies (and all of its clones), The Purge, The Belko Experiment, The Tournament, The Cabin in the Woods—you get the gist. Then there are those stories where the protagonist hires an assassin to kill themselves because that’s how uninteresting their life has become, and then changes their mind due to their renewed will to live, e.g., Afsos, Bulworth, I Hired a Contract Killer, Dual (well, kind of), The Assassination Bureau, etc. Self Reliance falls somewhere in the middle of these two subgenres, but is it as interesting as any of the aforementioned titles? Well, let’s find out.
In his directorial debut, Jake Johnson tells the story of Tommy Walcott, a man who lives in Los Angeles with his mother, Laurie, under the strict condition that he’ll have to move out as soon as he is unemployed. He has two sisters, Mary and Amy, and Amy is married to Malcolm. One day, during his mundane routine, Tommy is approached by the actor Andy Samberg, who asks him if he is interested in partaking in a mystery game. Tommy instantly agrees, and that surprises Andy because he believes that nobody in their right mind should be a participant in a game that they know nothing about. But since Tommy sticks to his decision, he is taken to a warehouse with a red door, and that’s where he meets the hosts of the game, Magnus and Anders. The two men tell him that he can win a million dollars if he can survive 30 days without being killed by assassins. The only way he can avoid getting killed is by being accompanied by a friend, a family member, or a stranger. Tommy thinks that’s the easiest million dollars he is going to earn because he is surrounded by so many family members. However, when all of them refuse to believe that this game is real, Tommy has to resort to the weirdest options to stay alive.
Self Reliance covers a plethora of topics. The most obvious ones are loneliness and isolation. Despite being a “likable guy,” Tommy is apparently very antisocial, and hence, he doesn’t have anyone to rely on other than his family members. The dynamic between Tommy and his family shows that it’s stupid to expect unconditional love from a bunch of people just because they belong to the same family tree. In addition to all that, the fact that Tommy lives with his mother highlights how financial constraints in the 21st century are disallowing generations of people to live on their own and how that can be a pleasant or unpleasant experience, depending on one’s relationship with their family. Furthermore, Tommy’s characterization is a commentary on the “nice guy” trope, wherein somebody expects their boring lifestyle to be accepted and emulated by their loved ones. They confuse willful ignorance with innocence and expect everyone to be apologetic for expecting the bare minimum from them. However, their latent need for attention prevents them from dissociating completely from society, thereby causing them to hover around people who are naive enough to believe in their “likability” or are equally hypocritical about how much love they require.
The issue with Self Reliance is that there’s not a lot more to it than this Truman Show-esque premise. You get a hold of the themes and the message of the film, and that’s it. I mean, it’s interesting to see Boban Marjanović echoing his altercation with John Wick in Chapter 3, the various assassins dressed as cowboys, Mario, or Ellen DeGeneres, or the production assistants breaking their rules to help Tommy. Yes, you can treat all that as a commentary on the insidious nature of reality television shows and the weaponization of nostalgia. But it’s the way Johnson builds up every single altercation, only to give it a lackluster payoff, that bothers me. Adam Silver’s cinematography, Ryan Brown’s editing, and Dan Romer’s music emulate the aesthetics of the aforementioned death game or “suicide via a hired assassin” stories. However, when it comes to doing something truly original or pushing the boundaries of what it means for Tommy to interact with the things that are a part of his personality, the movie really falters. Jake Johnson is one of the best in the comedy genre. So, I am sure he knows more about it than me. That said, I feel that the choice to do awkward improv humor or dry comedy didn’t really fit here. There are several interactions that overstay their welcome, largely because the stuff that the actors are riffing on is just not that funny.
The actors do keep Self Reliance from becoming too boring, though. Jake Johnson takes it upon himself to do all the heavy lifting. His portrayal of Tommy’s sense of confusion, frustration, grit, and need for attention—it’s all very palpable. It is a physically demanding performance because he has to keep up with the rest of the actors and his stunt double during the action-heavy sequences. But I am a little conflicted about whether it’s all a little too self-indulgent or not. Earlier this month, I saw Dan Levy commit the same mistake by writing, directing, and starring in his directorial debut and forgetting to share the spotlight. Jake Johnson has done something similar here. I mean, when Anna Kendrick comes into the picture with her chaotic energy with her dog pottery and devil-may-care attitude, it’s supposed to bring about a shift in the tone of the film, but she is forced to be very one note, and hence, nothing much changes. Natalie Morales is there. Andy Samberg is also there. Biff Wiff tags along with Jake Johnson, and, yes, he is all right. Every time Eduardo Franco appears, he elicits laughter. Miriam Flynn is pretty good. All the assassins are okay. However, I can’t shake the feeling of how Jake would’ve handled all this if he was in charge of the directing and writing departments only or if he’d restricted his reach to the acting department.
Self Reliance is a fine movie that talks about the growing isolation that is starting to creep into our lives and the desperate methods we are resorting to in order to deal with our mortality. It has a relatively short running time. So, if you are looking for something that’s not time-consuming but interesting enough to hold your attention for over an hour, you can give this film a shot. There are a lot of popular faces, and if you are familiar with their older works, you’ll enjoy them here; especially if you are a fan of New Girl. The movie looks competent, and you can clearly foresee Jake Johnson doing wonders with a bigger budget if he chooses to be a little more selfless. And you can pair it up with any of the aforementioned movies and shows, or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, and have a darkly comedic and existential viewing experience.