Jake Johnson’s Directorial Debut Is A Suitable Vehicle For His Shaggy Comic Energy [SXSW]

Mar 13, 2023

Jake Johnson’s “Self Reliance” opens, as many a classy movie does, with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” It applies, to some extent, to the character Johnson plays in the film that follows; it may apply more to the actor and now writer/director himself. Over his seven seasons on “New Girl” and his shambling appearances in charming, small-scale indies like “Drinking Buddies,” “Ride the Eagle,” and “Win It All” (which he co-wrote), he’s developed an onscreen persona that seems reasonably similar to his own personality and sensibility. “Self Reliance” feels like an attempt to synthesize that sensibility into a single weird, shaggy comedy. 
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Johnson stars as Tom, who’s living a drone’s life – every day the same, it seems. So when the men from the dark web reality show send Andy Samberg to fetch him in a limousine and offer him a million dollars to be hunted for thirty days, it feels like he mostly accepts the offer to break the monotony. And when Samberg — playing himself delightfully — asks him, “Do you want to continue on this adventure?” he answers convincingly: “Fuck it, yes.”
So what we have here, in effect, is a slacker riff on “The Game.” On the one hand, Tom’s reactions to this offer and the entire situation seem a little nonplussed. On the other, well, what would you do? “Let’s play!” he announces, and we hard cut to the title card: DAY 1. There will be 30 days. The hunters can track him anywhere, with only one rule: they can only kill him if no one else is in danger. So, he reasons, if he manages to stay close to someone else — friends, family members, etc. — it’s a cakewalk to the million bucks.
It turns out that’s not so easy. His sisters and mother are understandably skeptical of his story (“Mom, you believe me, right?” “Not even a little.”) He eventually hires a homeless man to shadow him, and true to his affable form, they become besties — perhaps because he’s found the only person who’ll believe him. “Thank you for taking my unique situation seriously!” Tom says, and as a filmmaker, Johnson adopts a similar tone; he embraces the silliness of the situation but orchestrates the events onscreen with the understanding that it’s somehow, someway plausible.
He’s also wise enough to shake the snow globe around the mid-movie mark, bringing in a character for Anna Kendrick to play, which is never a bad idea. She’s Maddie, whom Tom discovers (via CraigsList) is also a contestant; they meet up, hit it off, and quickly realize that if they’re each other’s other close-proximity person, they can zip right through the rest of their month. Johnson and Kendrick are just terrific together — ample chemistry, excellent comic byplay — and the sense of play, the feeling of one-upmanship in their scenes together,  immediately cranks the picture up a notch. They’ve appeared together before, in the Joe Swanberg movies “Drinking Buddies” and “Digging for Fire,” and it feels like a role written expressly for her — custom-built to showcase what she does well, her specific energy and spark.
The picture’s other supporting players also come off well: Natalie Morales’s appearance is brief, but it includes a deep sigh that explains an entire history; Emily Hampshire steals every single scene simply by finding the whole thing hilarious; and while the detached and dispirited celebrity is well-trod ground, Samberg plays it with his entire chest. And then there’s Johnson himself, who has truly mastered the pained expression as a comic weapon, and few comic actors play the carefully raised voice like an instrument as well as he can (“We’re doin’ a DAD TALK?!?”).
He shows promise as a filmmaker as well; he has a clean sense of montage, his indulgences in weirdness and absurdity mostly land, and there are some fairly clever twists in his script, which exhibits the same sharp comic timing and slightly dizzy sense of humor he’s mastered as a performer. “Self Reliance” only really flags in the home stretch, where Johnson quickens the pace but still seems to run out of steam. It’s easy to see why: he breaks up Maddie and Tom for no good reason — in this narratively clutch moment, the picture gets entirely too fuzzy— and when she checks out of the movie, to some extent, so do we. [B]
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