'Self Reliance' Doesn't Buy Into Its Own Premise

Directed by Jake Johnson

Starring Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Emily Hampshire, Mary Holland, Nancy Lenehan, Wayne Brady, Biff Wiff, Daryl J. Johnson, Natalie Morales, Christopher Lloyd, Andy Samberg

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

BY Marko DjurdjićPublished Jan 18, 2024

A film about mental health can be funny, if it's handled well — What About Bob, Brain Candy and Nurse Betty immediately come to mind. What these films have, and what Jake Johnson's comedy-thriller Self Reliance lacks, is a script that supports both its premise and the characters explored within it.

Johnson (who most will remember as the affable Nick Miller on New Girl) pulls quadruple duty here, not only starring in the film, but also directing, writing and producing. He plays Tommy, a data analyst caught in a rut after his 20-plus-year relationship ends. He lives with his mother (Nancy Lenehan), doesn't seem to have any friends, and has two sisters, Amy (Mary Holland) and Mary (Emily Hampshire), who constantly nag him about his dead-end life. 

Out of the blue, Tommy is invited into a limo by Andy Samberg and asked to participate in a dark web reality game show in which Tommy will be hunted by a group of assailants and must survive 30 days without getting killed. After discovering a loophole in the game — if he's within arm's reach of another non-hunter, he can't be killed — he asks his family to be safety partners. When they all reject pleas, he posts an ad on Craigslist looking for another participant. 

Through the listing, he meets Maddy (Anna Kendrick) and the two decide to act as one another's proximity safety buddies. As Tommy's paranoia grows and he begins seeing shadowy killers taking aim at him in the night, we are left to wonder if this is real, or if these delusions of persecution are entirely in his head.

While this high-concept approach is promising on paper, Johnson's execution leaves a lot to be desired. The film asks audiences to accept its premise from the jump and wastes no time introducing Tommy to the game (thankfully). Johnson also establishes the relationships between characters quickly and efficiently, but they feel unnatural and hollow, particularly Tommy's interactions with Malcolm (Daryl J. Johnson), Amy's partner, who becomes his first (and short-lived) safety partner. 

Natalie Morales, who plays Tommy's long-suffering ex, is wonderful, and one of the film's bright spots even though she's only in one scene. As Tommy's mom and sisters, Lenehan, Holland and Hampshire also shine, but the film's co-leads are dull in comparison. 

Both Kendrick and Johnson play to their strengths — she the flustered, fast talking, wide-eyed best friend and potential love interest, and he the lovable curmudgeon and perpetual loser — but those schticks grew thin a long time ago, and it's disappointing that Johnson paints himself into the same corner that everyone else does. The chemistry between Kendrick and Johnson is nonexistent, and they always seem to be working just a bit too hard to prove that they need or even like each.

Johnson's diligent, unpretentious direction contains the absurd premise in a relatively realistic frame, letting the proceedings get surreal, but never too surreal. And therein lies the problem: the film clings to the middle, keeping things altogether too safe. Johnson's multi-genre approach is ambitious, particularly for a first-time director, but he never explores the best parts of either genre — it's not dark enough to be a thriller, and not funny enough to be a comedy. 

Self Reliance simply flounders, regurgitating bad, often sophomoric jokes and poorly constructed visual gags for cheap laughs. An extended conversation with the maintenance guy of a motel is particularly painful (he's dressed as Mario, how hilarious…), and when the game's name is revealed, Johnson threatens to lose the audience right there and then. Even when the film tries to be ominous, it's just silly; using the same squealing violins in every scene just doesn't build tension.

Through the concept of the game, Johnson forces Tommy to engage meaningfully with his mental health struggles, and, in doing so, Tommy confronts his beliefs, traumas and limitations. Unfortunately, the film doesn't even seem to believe its own premise, which is the biggest letdown. It undermines its own conceit, using irony as a defence against sentimentality. For example, there are "production assistant ninjas" who follow Tommy, film him and give him advice, but their inclusion is confusing and underdeveloped: are they his coping mechanism or his illness? Are they even really there? What do they represent, if anything? These instances of meta-comedy serve to validate the audience's own feelings about the film, as if Johnson is pre-emptively protecting himself from criticism by recognizing and acknowledging his film's most apparent shortcomings.

The film's unsatisfying conclusion dampens the proceedings even more than the poorly constructed jokes and overall lack of tension. Johnson wants us to believe that one's greatest power comes from self-acceptance and that the individual must heal (it's in the title, after all). And yet, the game's loophole requires Tommy to rely on other people and his network for support and safety. 

When those people reject him, he finds someone who is willing to help — but only when he loses everything and everyone can he set himself on the path to recovery, or at least his version of recovery. In fact, he rubs it in his family's faces when their feelings towards him are proven wrong. Thus, the film posits that other people are a crutch, perhaps even an impediment, and that you alone can help yourself, which leaves the film feeling cynical and downright unpleasant. 

A forgettable and disappointing directorial debut for Johnson, Self Reliance lacks a subversive edge, which inevitably makes the entire film feel superficial. It fails to significantly engage with its myriad themes (social media, reality television, mental health, recovery, family, individualism), and there are so many mixed metaphors and intentions that we long for the lean, tense plotting of Johnson's writing debut, Win It All.

Johnson clearly wants to avoid being cheesy or inspirational, and that's fine, but his approach to mental health and mental illness is irresponsibly flippant. A film can joke about mental health, but it should never be the joke.
(Paramount Pictures)

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