SELF RELIANCE Review: Jake Johnson's Directorial Debut, A Feast of Wonderful Absurdity

Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Morales, and Andy Samberg star in the comedy thriller, directed by Jake Johnson, premiering exclusively on Hulu.

Contributing Writer
SELF RELIANCE Review: Jake Johnson's Directorial Debut, A Feast of Wonderful Absurdity

Tommy (Jake Johnson) is living an ordinary and miserable life that primarily consists of going to the office and pining for an ex who dumped him a long time ago. Andy Samberg to the rescue – the actor, playing himself, strolls along in a limo and takes Tommy for a ride.

Samberg brings him to a warehouse where creepy guys make him an offer he can and obviously should refuse: to participate in an unknown reality show where he might win one million dollars if he just survives 30 consecutive days. That’s the caveat – the point of the show is that people will try to murder him.

Tommy is pretty open about the unfortunate fact that this nonsense is the most exciting thing that ever happened to him, so he agrees. There seems to be an easy strategy of survival: the Hunters cannot kill him if he is not alone. So, Tommy just needs to make sure he is with someone - anyone, at all hours. Coercing people into co-existing proves harder than he expected though and prompts Tommy to find creative solutions.

What follows is what you might expect from the feature directorial debut of New Girl star Jake Johnson produced by The Lonely Island: it’s witty, absurd, self-aware and at times moving. It must be both a blessing and a curse to be a famous actor making their debut as a director.

On one hand, you’ve got Andy Samberg and Wayne Brady doing cameos, as well as Anna Kendrick, Biff Wiff and Christopher Lloyd generally having fun on screen. On the other, you don’t debut from scratch; you debut from a place of certain expectations and fears about whether onscreen comedy skills can be well transferred behind the camera. Not to worry, though. Self Reliance shows that Johnson has a great sense of the absurd, as evident both in his script and his direction.

Starting from Andy Samberg’s appearance when he’s basically like, 'Here’s the offer, I hope you’re not idiotic enough to actually take it,' the degree of absurdity only gets blissfully higher. There’s a discussion about Michael Jackson’s attire in the aftermath of an assassination attempt, and the beginning of a beautiful friendship with a random homeless guy (Biff Wiff at his best).

There's also Tommy’s entire family (the great ensemble of Mary Holland, Emily Hampshire, Nancy Lenehan and Daryl J. Johnson) really hating the idea of spending time with him. And production assistant ninjas lurking at night. One of the best scenes includes Tommy getting into a heated quarrel about Super Mario with a guy he suspects is sent to kill him. Also, Tommy decides to team up with another contestant from the show, and the Queen of Perkiness, the great Anna Kendrick bursts onto the screen.

Here is when the main issue of Self Reliance becomes evident: it tries to be and strives to say too many things at once. Kendrick is obviously a delight, as is her chemistry with Johnson, but it’s all pretty much wasted on a sudden attempt at a weird romcom that appears out of nowhere.

The film switches between different genres, but at the same time never allows itself to go full-throttle insane; a shame, since its premise offers so many opportunities. Still, that doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment.

There’s a great deal of commentary about the nature of reality TV that has a decent bite. All the while, there’s also another way of looking at Tommy’s adventures, as an allegory for the process of healing; something that can (and usually does) look absurd to onlookers, including doing seemingly stupid or crazy things, and forming connections others don’t understand.

It's not exactly a revelation, but it’s still a nice reminder: when given a choice between staying in the comfort zone and stepping outside it, always choose the option that includes Anna Kendrick.

The film premieres exclusively on Hulu Friday, January 12.

Self Reliance

  • Jake Johnson
  • Jake Johnson
  • Jake Johnson
  • Anna Kendrick
  • Andy Samberg
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Andy SambergAnna KendrickHuluJake JohnsonNatalie MoralesComedyThriller

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