You probably recognize Jake Johnson from his standout role as Nick Miller in New Girl. With his trademark grumpy charm and goofy physical comedy, Johnson carved out a niche playing lovable mess-ups. Now he’s bringing that schlubby comedic persona behind the camera for his directorial debut Self Reliance.
The film’s premise sounds like it was dreamed up during lockdown boredom. Johnson stars as Tommy, a down-in-the-dumps dude stuck in a dull routine. When a sketchy reality show offers him a million bucks to survive being hunted for 30 days, Tommy figures why the hell not. It’s a dangerous game for sure, with only one rule to keep the hunters at bay: Tommy has to stay close to another person at all times.
What unfolds is part thriller, part off-kilter character study. As Tommy scrambles to avoid assassination, he also starts to wake up from his slump. Turns out having trained killers on your tail, even imaginary ones, can give you a new lease on life. Johnson uses the zany concept to touch on themes of complacency, self-reliance versus human connection, and making meaning out of boredom. And he brings his signature awkward comedy stylings along for the ride.
Shuffling Through a Surreal Scheme
Tommy is stuck. Each day blends into the next as our downbeat protagonist trudges through the same soul-sucking routine. He drags himself to a mind-numbing office job, then zones out watching TV every night, unable to move on from his ex.
When Andy Samberg randomly shows up offering Tommy a spot on a sketchy game show, it feels like divine intervention. The rules are simple: survive being hunted by assassins for 30 days without getting killed. There’s just one loophole – the hunters can’t off Tommy if he stays close to another person. With $1 million on the line, Tommy figures why not liven things up.
What follows is a balancing act between zany comedy and pulses of paranoia. Tommy tries convincing his skeptical family to be his human shields, leading to awkward hijinks like lurking beside his brother-in-law on the toilet. With no luck there, he resorts to hiring a grinning homeless man named James as his new BFF. Their odd couple dynamic brings laughs, but Tommy still can’t shake the feeling unseen killers lurk around each corner.
Just when the tension boils over, Tommy discovers another contestant – the adventurous Maddy. With Anna Kendrick’s trademark spirited charm, her rapport with Johnson gels perfectly. The pair hatch a plan: if they stick together for the remainder of the game, they’ll split the prize. As they traverse the city relying on each other to survive, Tommy slowly emerges from his funk. He forms genuine connections that rouse him from complacency.
By getting Tommy entangled in a reality show mind-trip, Johnson crafts a nuanced arc about breaking old patterns. The more Tommy embraces the chaos of this social experiment, the more he evolves into a self-assured version of himself. Both a quirky character study and a heightened romp, Self Reliance keeps you invested in its protagonist’s journey from start to unlikely finish.
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Searching for Substance
On the surface, Self Reliance unfolds as an absurdist escapade about staying alive. But in slyly putting its everyman hero through the reality show ringer, Johnson taps into some resonant ideas bubbling beneath our pandemic malaise.
Most prominently, the film examines the crushing weight of boredom and routine. As the daily grind erodes Tommy’s lust for life, signing up for a deadly game show seems no crazier than trudging back to the office. By shaking up his monotonous patterns, the film prompts questions about breaking from our own ruts in search of fulfillment.
Tied to Tommy’s tedium is a longing for connection. Having isolated himself after his breakup, the threat of assassination ironically gets him engaging with people again. As he lets down his guard to recruit companionship, he rediscovers his need for relationships. Both the charming camaraderie with his homeless buddy James and the brewing attraction to Maddy pull Tommy out of his hardened shell.
Self Reliance also subtly ponders the dichotomy between dependence and independence. Tommy only stays alive by relying on help from relative strangers. Yet in shedding his self-sufficiency, he becomes more assured in himself. The film suggests it takes a village to rescue the most disconnected among us.
In this strange social experiment premise, we see echoes of the past few years. External extremes pushing people to value human bonds; the realization that no one thrives in complete solitude. By catapulting its protagonist into an unthinkable scenario, Self Reliance encourages us to consider what extremes it might take to truly appreciate connection in the wake of isolation.
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Walking a Tonal Tightrope
With its far-fetched premise yet understated execution, Self Reliance navigates a tricky tonal tightrope act. Johnson grounds the absurd set-up in a straight-faced deadpan sensibility, finding earnest beats amid outlandish scenarios. From this tricky balancing act emerges a unique viewing perspective – are we watching an actual reality show or peering inside the subjectivity of a down-on-his luck protagonist?
True to form, Johnson infuses the film with his signature dry wit and awkward physical comedy. As Tommy fumbles through close calls, the actor-director showcases exquisite comedic timing. Supporting turns from Kendrick and scene-stealer Biff Wiff offer bright spots of levity. Yet a pervasive mood of irony and uncertainty simmers below the surface hijinks.
Johnson leans into reality show tropes, with knowing winks at the genre’s manipulated absurdity. Omniscient production assistants offer cryptic clues on evading assassination. Unceremonious eliminations happen off-screen. By blurring reality show conventions with a single character’s surreal emotional journey, the viewer perspective takes on eerie subjectivity. Are we watching an actual dark web program or peering inside the unraveling mind of an isolated protagonist? Johnson keeps us guessing with this masterful interweaving of tones.
As the final act veers into more traditional rom-com beats between Tommy and Maddy, the delicate balance occasionally wavers. Some emotional turns feel unearned next to the established ironic detachment. Yet by walking this tonal tightrope for most of its runtime, Self Reliance largely sticks an ambitious landing. In capturing isolation’s blurring of reality and quirky flights of fancy, Johnson emerges with a fresh directorial voice attuned to pandemic-era sensibilities.
Comedy Chemistry Anchors the Chaos
In his first turns as writer, director, and star, Jake Johnson demonstrates a keen understanding of his own strengths. As Tommy, his hangdog charm and physical comedy chops ground the film’s high-concept hijinks. We believe this schlub could spiral into a dangerous reality show scheme just to cure his boredom.
Fortunately, Johnson surrounds himself with a game cast adept at balancing quirky character beats with emotional honesty. His easy chemistry with Anna Kendrick livens up the second act, recalling their pairing in Digging for Fire. Kendrick’s spirited presence aligns well with the film’s heightened tone. As the fiercely individualistic Maddy, she presents the perfect foil to bring Tommy out of his shell.
The supporting players also leave distinct impressions despite limited screen time. Scene-stealer Biff Wiff makes a meal of each minute as Tommy’s affable homeless companion James. Emily Hampshire mines laughs from palpable exasperation as Tommy’s disbelieving sister. And Andy Samberg nails the cameo, lampooning vain celebrity with aplomb.
By encouraging improvisational riffing within the bizarre premise, Johnson elicits lively work from his ensemble. They buy into the social experiment with conviction, grounding the life-or-death stakes in relatable humor. Once again Johnson proves his talent for directing actors to their most charismatic comic spaces – even as a debut filmmaker.
Crafting Order Amidst Anarchy
For his first feature directorial effort, Johnson displays a finely-tuned command of craft. Considering the unreliable premise rooted in subjective madness, Self Reliance exhibits an impressive narrative cohesion and visual continuity. Johnson’s editing rhythms effectively build comic suspense and character investment. Meanwhile the camerawork grounds us in Tommy’s unsettled viewpoint.
Johnson’s writing and direction elicit crackerjack comedic sequences through the ensemble. By establishing clear rules then tracing their logical consequences, he crafts a tightly-plotted progression through escalating absurdity. Only occasionally does Tommy’s shifting dynamic with Maddy lead to some unearned pivots in tone. But overall Johnson juggles order amidst intended anarchy.
From a visual standpoint, Toby Oliver’s cinematography provides subtle orientation cues. The camera often stays fixed on Tommy in static wide shots, suggesting the voyeuristic presence of viewers watching this strange reality show unfold. Meanwhile off-kilter close-ups reinforce Tommy’s cautious perceptions, keeping us grounded in how he processes encroaching threats. Oliver’s framing choices complement the line between observing a bizarre program versus peering at the world through Tommy’s eyes.
For much of its brisk runtime, Self Reliance exhibits astonishing narrative control and visual verisimilitude given such an unbound premise. Only in the final act denouement does Johnson struggle to balance plot resolution with the emotional vulnerability catalyzed through this social experiment crucible. But as debuts go, his burgeoning directorial voice brims with potential for marrying unhinged concepts with unlikely humanity.
An Auspicious Debut of Personality
Considering the offbeat ingredients he juggles, Johnson mostly succeeds at baking an eclectic yet coherent directorial debut. Self Reliance delivers on the promise of its novel premise, serving up the actor’s trademark blend of deadpan humanism. While navigating some third act turbulence, the film brings welcome wit and emotional resonance to the reality show satire subgenre.
Anchored by vivid performances and a controlled handle on escalating absurdity, Self Reliance mines existential gold from its high concept. Only occasionally does the scriptprivileging plot mechanics over character consistency. But Johnson directs his ensemble to uniformly grounded, amusing work, centered by his own signature comedic persona. For the most part, the various elements coalesce into an off-kilter yet thoughtful exploration of awakening one’s zest for life.
As his maiden voyage directing signals, Johnson remains an assured conduit for quirky humanity amidst outsized scenarios. His knack for outcast camaraderie transfers cleanly behind the camera. Should future ideas match this inventive spark of inspiration, we likely have an idiosyncratic new directorial sensibility to savor.
By using the frame of a reality show head-trip to shine light on the beauty of genuine connections, Self Reliance suggests the birth of a compassionate and weirdly wonderful directorial outlook. Johnson earns audience investment in this schlubby everyman while nudging us to reconsider what extremes today require for true awakening. In capturing that tension of the surreal and the sincerely human, the filmmaker suggests a promising cinematic perspective tailored to these times.
By catapulting its bored protagonist into a warped reality show crucible, Self Reliance makes a compelling case for Jake Johnson’s directorial potential. What could play as mere quirky novelty instead becomes a vehicle for resonant ideas about breaking routine and embracing connection. Bolstered by affable performances and a controlled grasp of tone, Johnson’s debut delivers a human story told slantwise, suggesting a promising cinematic perspective.
- Jake Johnson's signature dry, awkward humor
- Strong rapport and chemistry between leads
- Creative and absurd premise explored with discipline
- Balancing of quirky comedy with thoughtful themes
- Standout supporting performances
- Plot loses some steam in third act
- Some unearned tonal shifts late in movie
- Premise limits genuine feelings of suspense/danger