‘Self Reliance’ Review: Jake Johnson’s Directorial Debut Has An Interesting Premise But Spoils It With Unfocused Execution – SXSW

Written, produced, directed, and starring Jake Johnson, Self Reliance follows Tommy (Jake Johnson), a man accomplishing nothing else in life except to exist, and attempts to spice up his life lead to some near-death encounters. Along with Johnson, the film stars Anna Kendrick, Natalie Morales, and Emily Hampshire. 

Tommy is a lonely man coasting through life because he’s afraid to confront his failures, and hides behind his mom (who he lives with). While walking home from work one day he meets Andy Samberg, who invites the wayward man into his limo for a ride to a mysterious location. The actor tells Tommy that he’s been selected to participate in something, but Samberg can’t recall any other details. Once they arrive at the destination (an old abandoned warehouse of some sort), Tommy walks through a red door to a desk where two men sit, waiting to explain what he’s gotten into. 

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What he finds is this is a survival reality show that’s only hosted on the dark web, where Tommy is hunted for 30 days. If he can survive, he will be rewarded with $1 million. They will track his every movement and will kill him on sight if he’s ever alone. The stories of how he came upon this opportunity are so unbelievable, that his family, especially his sister Mary (Hampshire) doesn’t believe him. They think he’s making things up because Tommy has nothing else to live for. With no one on his side, and constantly looking over his shoulder for possible danger, he intends to survive while becoming a changed man.  

The movie moves day by day through Tommy’s ordeal. With the passing of the hours, he moves closer to death, but it does cause him to begin truly living. Self Reliance is an apt title, as he becomes more outgoing, makes new friends, and finally breaks up his boring life routine. He’s thinking for himself and living on his own outside of his family dictating what his life should be. There are other ways to combat living a solitary life than joining a life or death TV show, but you get in how you fit in. The problem this character can’t seem to shake is he doesn’t live in the moment and appreciate the relationships he has, which is the reason why he was dumped by his girlfriend, Theresa (Morales). He’s a man who is just now growing up–who no one wants to wait around for that. 

There is such potential in Johnson’s script, but the third act is all over the place. It forces the audience to decipher whether or not everything we’ve seen is real. Throughout the film, the tone shifts between comedy and suspense, with some horror elements, but starts to resemble David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, and completely stops being funny. The music also follows the same unfocused path, which often left me shaking my head in confusion. There’s some doo-wop songs mixed with a hoarse horror score that sometimes drowns out the comedic moments.

Self-Reliance is never dull, but the story isn’t as well-structured, because the third act is an erratic mess. The other issue is at the conclusion, Tommy doesn’t undergo a complete 180 degree change, so he’s still a douche by the end, just with more money. So the audience just went through all that for what? There is a great story in there somewhere, but disappointing viewing experience overall. 

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