Would you agree to go on a reality show – the biggest reality show on the dark web – without knowing anything about it? How about if SNL’s Andy Samberg is involved? Oh, and you could be killed while playing! That’s the premise of the new movie Self Reliance, written and directed by actor Jake Johnson. A Chicago improv veteran, Johnson is probably best known for the network comedy New Girl but has done more dramatic roles on Stumpton (RIP!) and Minx. You can also hear his mellifluous voice as Peter B. Parker in the Spider-Verse films. He brings that versatility behind the camera with his debut feature.
Although not explicitly Jewish, Johnson’s character Thomas occupies that stereotypical, comedically depressed and/or anxious space that performers like Jesse Eisenberg, Seth Rogen or Michael Cera are known for. Thomas has just been “existing” for years, as his ex-girlfriend Theresa (Natalie Morales) puts it, doing the same things over and over, even sitting in the same chair at his local restaurant. But he’s aware enough to recognize he’s in a rut so when Andy Samberg (playing a slightly down-and-out version of himself) pulls up in a limo holding a sign with Thomas’s name on it and asks if he likes limos, Thomas gets in. Samberg congratulates him on being “selected”, reads off Thomas’s brief bio and tells him “I think the company that hired me has been tracking you for a while”. Samberg asks if he wants to continue and Thomas replies “why not”, to Samberg’s surprise and alarm. “Really?! Why?!”
All Thomas has to do, he learns, is stay alive and outwit his pursuers for 30 days. If he does, he’ll collect $1 million. But he can only be dispatched when he’s alone; there’s no risk to anyone else. The absurdity and comedy – and it is a comedy more than anything else even though the threat is real – play out as Thomas has to plan for always having someone with him after his dismissive sisters and mom (Emily Hampshire, Mary Holland and Nancy Lenehan, respectively) don’t believe him. Needing a shadow, he pays an older, affable homeless guy, James (Biff Wiff) to stick with him. Thomas appears to not have a strong friend circle and the two form a genuine bond. Soon thereafter, Thomas meets the bubbly Maddy (Anna Kendrick) and then the first Hunter (Houston Rockets center Boban Marjanovic) tries to eliminate him. Maddy, who brings her mother (Miriam Flynn) to their first rendezvous, is a curiously unflappable companion. They both have about a half a month to go before they can claim the prize.
It’s an intriguing and funny idea for a movie. Self Reliance runs a brisk 90 minutes and I enjoyed seeing how the relationship between Thomas and James, and the one between Thomas and Maddy developed while they evaded assassins. But I wanted more laughs, especially given the talent on hand. It’s a winning cast: Samberg is hilarious in his scenes that bookend the movie and Lenehan and Flynn are particularly good. Johnson is ever likable and it’s a decent first effort for him. But I hope for his next project there’s stronger writing and more of the dry wit he’s brought to his television and film projects.
Self Reliance Is Available Now Exclusively On Hulu.