Run Time: 1hr 25 mins
Genre: Comedy, Action/Adventure, Thriller, Silly Adventure, Buddy Comedy, Mystery
Suggested for: People and pets of all ages. Those who love Squid Games, Hunger Games, hunting, etc. Adoring fans of The Pepperwood Chronicles or other deep cut references from New Girl.
To tell you I know I will watch this movie a dozen times or more over the next 6 months is probably an understatement. Written, directed, produced, and starred in by none other than Jake Johnson (fka such gems as “Shady David Krumholtz” and “a deeply troubled, degenerate Oscar Isaac”), Self Reliance is a comedy thriller that pushes the needle on self-awareness. A heavily nuanced piece, it presents as a little more whacky, with adrenaline-inducing chase scenes and the inclusion of several familiar faces. My twin sister is in town, and it was the perfect way to spend the early hours of our Friday morning with Schmidt (the cat) in tow.
IMDb Description: Given the opportunity to participate in a life or death reality game show, one man discovers there’s a lot to live for.
Tommy (Jake Johnson) is a man not quite taking advantage of the prime of his life. He lives with his mom after a debilitating breakup and sticks to a daily routine that seems rigid and unfulfilling. He wakes up with a picture of his ex next to the alarm clock, rides the exercise bike watching the iPad with no sense of urgency, walks the same route to work, pushes paper at his desk all day, walks to the bar for a drink, and heads home. Everything seems gray, and very purposefully so.
One day, Andy Samberg – another producer on the project is The Lonely Island – pulls up alongside Tommy in a limo. He tells Tommy he doesn’t know why he has picked him up, but that people are waiting for him and the driver takes them to a warehouse where they drop Tommy off and urgently leave. Samberg’s quintessential over-the-top facial expressions and visible discomfort during the scene help to foreshadow a rough go for Tommy.
After following red arrows through a maze of warehouse corridors, Tommy finds himself facing a table of foreign men who tell him he has been invited to play a game where he is being hunted. It is all being broadcast to the dark web. Hunters could find him, but they might not. The only way he can avoid being killed is to stay in close proximity to another person for 30 days. If he survives that time frame, he gets $1 million. Sounds easy, so he accepts.
THIS PARAGRAPH HAS MILD SPOILERS. SKIP THIS SECTION IF YOU’D LIKE.
Until his family hears his story about Andy Samberg picking him up in a limo and offering him a spot in a game where people hunt others for sport. Because he is stuck in a post-breakup depression haze, Tommy’s family – expertly played by Mary Holland, Emily Hampshire, and Nancy Lenehan – thinks his mental health has tanked and he just doesn’t want to be alone. When he furthers their theory about his sanity by physically moving his brother-in-law from the toilet mid-shit to prove to an assassin that he isn’t alone through a bathroom window in the middle of the night, they back out entirely. He recruits a houseless man to live and work with him so he is never alone, consequently loses his job, and is thrown into a hailstorm of a month.
Joining Johnson in his debut effort is an insanely stacked cast. Aside from the aforementioned, Natalie Morales appears as Tommy’s ex. Anna Kendrick plays his love interest, a woman named Maddy who reaches out when Tommy posts a cryptic Craigslist ad to learn more about other players of this game. Christopher Lloyd makes an appearance, as well as Wayne Brady, Biff Wiff, Boban Marjanović, GaTa – whose work bringing mental health-focused projects to the table has held a healthy balance amidst his music and acting endeavors – and Eduardo Franco, who is pretty much everyone’s favorite human to be around.
My sister, Erin P.S. Zimmerman (a producer, filmmaker, and film critic) had a pointed takeaway from this fun watch. The man who wrote this movie has most likely experienced loneliness and pain, and come to his own existential conclusions. Humor and growth have been found in the process. Through Self Reliance, Jake Johnson has pinpointed the importance of community in the human experience. Though I’m sure the plotline was born from many inside jokes and comedic life experiences – and a flurry of incredible pop culture references – the core of the film is, truly, togetherness.
It is also, in my opinion, a sound testament to trusting your own gut and instincts through life. As terrifying as some of the situations were that the characters found themselves in, they had to work their their own intuition and ideas with the information they had to move forward. Watching these characters pause for thought, and then approach situations with unwarranted confidence is almost empowering. Because, truly, nothing different is happening to the people in Self Reliance than is happening to all of us at any point in our lives. Anything can happen to you at any moment. And you have to work with what you have in that moment to thrive — or even just to survive. Curveballs – like the cryptic messages from GaTa and the P.A. Ninjas – can be thrown your way at any time. You have to be aware and ready to create your own destiny. (You know, instead of meandering about as we all do from time to time for an extended period. Because meandering is cool.)
Another great piece to this film is that Tommy recognizes the people who are helping him pretty quickly. His character even goes so far as to acknowledge them along the way, and it is because he is waking up and beginning to notice the things around him a lot more — see the world more clearly. (You would too if assassins were hidden around your world, trying to take you out as soon as you’re not paying attention.)
A more detailed perspective from Erin:
As someone that works in the production industry, watching how the P.A. Ninjas were presented was lighthearted and hilarious, but also true. Knowing that Jake Johnson has touched many facets of the filmmaking workflow – writer, director, producer, and actor in this movie alone – he went into this project as a filmmaker who has a more well-rounded perspective of the process.
Though the P.A. Ninjas seem like a characature, they are very true to life in that they bend over backwards for everyone, they take care of the people who take care of them, they’re ninjas that seem to do everything and take care of everything. But they are necessary and he brought light to the fact that they are ninjas. It was a nice little nod to workforces in the industry that aren’t often acknowledged by the executives and top-billed cast, or anyone who has never been in their position before.
Coming out of the strikes of 2023, the details in this film seem all the more important as the creative community bands together again to go through a season of productivity.
Self Reliance is a little more fast paced, and it will require a bit of attention to catch all of the quips and references. Johnson’s genius mind will have you second-guessing your predictions, assumptions, and real-time assessments until the very end. Be ready to spot Ellen DeGeneres, Mario, a sumo wrestler, samurais, and more – and question everything you know – on this adventure.
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