Jake Johnson’s Directorial Feature Debut Is Wildly Fun [SXSW]

Mar 23, 2023

Self Reliance, Jake Johnson’s directorial debut, is everything one might expect from the comedic actor. The film is genuinely funny, occasionally weird (in the best way), and just a tad unsettling. Johnson, who also wrote and starred in the film, mines the mile-a-minute comedy for all it’s worth. There is almost never a dull moment. And while Self Reliance fails to fully deliver in its final act, largely due to a tonal shift and a focus on action, it lives up to every expectation as a Johnson production, one that is elevated by an excellent supporting cast that is happy to go with the flow.

Tommy (Johnson, best known for his role in New Girl) has been feeling down and directionless ever since his girlfriend (Natalie Morales) of many years broke up with him two years ago. Now living with his mom and jobless, Tommy refuses to move forward with his life, stuck in the same daily routine. When he is approached by Andy Samberg in a limo, Tommy decides to take a risk and rides with him to a remote location. Samberg drops him off at a warehouse and drives off. Upon entry, Tommy is offered to take part in a dark web reality show where he will be hunted for 30 days by assassins from around the world. The only way to survive is to maintain a close proximity to someone else or risk being murdered. Tommy decides he has nothing to lose and agrees to do it, eventually hiring James (Biff Wiff), a homeless man to shadow him, and joining Maddy (Anna Kendrick), who claims she is a part of the same show.

Self Reliance is unafraid to be silly and completely ridiculous. The fact that Tommy has become so dependent on others in his personal life and refuses to move forward allows the audience, like his family, to doubt whether he’s actually being followed by assassins. The film’s premise is so out of left field that it’s easy to just go along for the ride, no matter where that leads. And what a ride it is! Tommy fumbles his way through surviving the dark web’s reality show, and Johnson’s penchant for comedic babbling plays into his character’s scenario seamlessly.

The film suggests that a wake-up call is precisely what is needed for Tommy to move forward and out of his comfort zone. When Self Reliance uses the dangerous game to develop Tommy and bring him to some important realizations, it soars. Its comedy, which is often random and witty, is also one of the film’s strongest aspects. Johnson, along with the rest of the cast, is hilarious. The actor-turned-director has a certain brand of humor — dry, acerbic, awkward — that works on every level, and Johnson utilizes it well in the film, taking the audience on a bizarre comedic journey they won’t soon forget.

It’s when Self Reliance leans into the action-thriller portion in its third act that the film loses much of its steam. To be sure, the setup ultimately leads there, but it’s not as thrilling as it aims to be, and its tonal shift doesn’t help matters much. It leaves the audience wondering where the comedy went as it careens towards an ending that aims to wrap things up in a nice bow, but doesn’t pack enough punch to do so. To that end, Johnson takes on too much by the film’s end, losing a big chunk of what makes the film so watchable to begin with.

All that said, Self Reliance is a sturdy debut from the actor. He assembles a fantastic cast to execute the story, and Johnson and Anna Kendrick are superb together. Kendrick’s character is a bit less loopy than Johnson’s, but the actress leans into the absurdity of the premise, and it helps that she and Johnson have excellent chemistry. The supporting cast, whose reactions to Tommy are consistently hilarious, is outstanding as well. Johnson’s rapport with — is a highlight, simultaneously uplifting and entertaining. Self Reliance doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s exactly the kind of directorial debut one would expect from Johnson — and he certainly delivers a wild, energetic, funny story that still works despite a lukewarm ending.

Self Reliance had its premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival on March 11. The film is 85 minutes long and not yet rated.

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