Self Reliance Review: Jake Johnson Aims Just High Enough in His Directorial Debut

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Summary

  • Self Reliance is a comedic thriller starring Jake Johnson that is both outrageously funny and fun throughout.
  • The film follows Tommy, a middle-aged man in need of a change, who agrees to participate in a dark web reality TV show to win $1 million.
  • With engaging dialogue, well-executed action sequences, and Johnson’s likability, the film strikes a fun balance between comedy and action. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s inspiring and fun.


Comedic absurdity abounds in Self Reliance, a welcome comedy thriller starring Jake Johnson (Minx), who also wrote the screenplay and makes his directorial debut. It’s a fun romp, oftentimes outrageously funny, as it moves along at an all-too-steady pace. Johnson, who became an audience favorite in shows like New Girl and Minx, knows how to put on the charming buffoonery for which he’s become famous. He certainly captures the mood throughout Self Reliance — from sparking hope to blinking eyes of confusion and looks of shock and awe.

The character he plays here has reason to be concerned. Tommy isn’t handling middle age well. He’s still mourning the loss of last year’s breakup — he and his “girlfriend” were together for 23 years — and his ho-hum number-crunching L.A. career could use a shakeup. Worse, his family can’t take much more of his frenzied state. They want him to “get on with it.” So does Tommy. But it’s going to take a miracle.

As if on cue (wink wink), Andy Samberg arrives in a limo and offers Tommy a chance to win $1 million in a convoluted dark web reality TV show, where global assassins will attempt to kill him for 30 days. One catch. Tommy won’t be killed if he’s not entirely alone. To that end, he will have to recruit a gaggle of souls — er, misfits — to help him survive. A winning idea. But does it hold up?


Leaping Off a Great Premise

Self Reliance
Self Reliance

Release Date
January 12, 2024

Rating
R

Runtime
1hr 25min

Pros
  • Thrilling action sequences and comedy are well-balanced throughout.
  • Jake Johnson is a charming and confident lead.
  • Supporting actors like the lovely Biff Wiff and the gorgeous Anna Kendrick elevate the material.
Cons
  • It’s a little too digestible and neat, wrapped in an easy bow.

The answer is: yes. Well, pretty much that is. Between the engaging dialogue, well-executed action sequences, and Johnson’s overall likability, it’s hard not to appreciate Self Reliance. It’s fun and upbeat, and we could all use some of that energy. So, when Johnson’s Tommy agrees to the invitation to be in the web series game. “Why would you say yes?” Samberg cracks — he’s only been hired to deliver the news and couldn’t care less about how things play out. Tommy’s response? “Because this is the most exciting thing to happen to me in ages. And I don’t want it to end.”

To be clear, it all began for Tommy 10 minutes ago, which shows you just how far the man’s life has plummeted. Hoping to pry himself out of his stoic routine, Tommy is eager to “survive” and collect some well-needed cash. But is it real? Or a joke? Johnson keeps the audience guessing about those possibilities as the film rolls along. There’s always a hint that Tommy may have imagined the entire debacle.

His family thinks so, and in what little time we spend with them, we’re led to consider their side. To them, Tommy has devolved into an obsessive, neurotic mess, somebody they can’t count on. Relish the barbs from the likes of Emily Hampshire (Schitt’s Creek) and Mary Holland (Happiest Season) here. Johnson makes great use of this motley crew, and most people would relate to either Tommy or his finger-pointers. The universal charm reveals itself here, and Johnson plays into his own stereotype with, well, such Jake Johnson panache, you can’t help but love the oddball Tommy is.

Related: Andy Samberg’s 7 Best Performances, Ranked

“Don’t call him The Sams,” Johnson’s Tommy shoots back when the clan grills him in disbelief about his encounter with a celebrity. “He goes by Andy.” To which his brother-in-law (Daryl J. Johnson) cracks, “What are you, his publicist?” That occasional improv-y vibe adds to the believability of this film. In fact, much of the breezy dialogue in Self Reliance obviously captures the actor and director’s past TV influences. With that, at times, the film feels like a robust dissertation about dialogue purposely underplayed in scenes made to feel hip and modern. No harm there because, in the end, it just makes us wonder what Johnson has in him next.

Great Blend of Comedy and Action

The heart of Self Reliance is divided somewhat evenly between Tommy surviving his misadventures and building upon his initial bond with James, a cheerful unhoused man he meets, played with charm by Biff Wiff (Everything Everywhere All at Once). Assassins appear. Tommy — sometimes with Biff in tow — mostly manages to dodge them. It delivers just the right level of threat without feeling over the top. Other films would have gone there — hello, The Family Plan.

Tommy eventually finds an ally in Anna Kenrick’s Maddy, who informs him she’s participating in the same dark web reality showdown that he is. A potential romance blooms, and it is to Johnson’s credit that he doesn’t over-milk the romantic plot point, which, in this movie, would have soured the entire occasion and made it feel like a rom-com attempting to be relevant.

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Instead, the writer-director keeps his story moving forward, sometimes at a feverish pace, other times allowing the tale to lag. Midway through, you wonder if Johnson purposely held back because he didn’t want to overstep as a first-time director, and, in turn, already overstayed his welcome. Themes of connectivity and the leaps we’d all take to change things a bit float around in this comedic soup.

It’s all digestible, almost too digestible to a point, making this outing feel like a latter-day EdTV by way of The Truman Show, where the laughs are all at the expense of the protagonist. Johnson is perfectly fit in that capacity, so all is not lost. Bottom line: Self Reliance delivers the goods even when it makes you crave a bit more. But relish the ending, which further establishes Jake Johnson as one of the best comedic forces of our time.

Self Reliance hits Hulu on Jan. 12, 2024. Watch it through the link below and check out the trailer:

Watch on Hulu

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