Jake Johnson is a fan-favorite comedic actor, so his directorial debut, Self Reliance, was a hot prospect at SXSW. Although the high-concept comedy feels a lot more shallow than it arguably should have been, there are plenty of absolutely hilarious jokes that make this more than funny enough to be worth watching.
The film follows a man who decides to participate in a dark web game show where, if he survives thirty days of being hunted by professional killers, he wins a large sum of money. It’s not an unfamiliar concept, but what makes the movie intriguing is the loophole: he can only be killed when he is alone, causing him to put himself in a series of situations where he is never by himself.
The deadpan humor of the film is very funny, and makes a lot of sense when you realize how heavily the Lonely Island was involved as producers. Ultimately, the movie seems to think it is much more profound than it is — its commentary on mental health largely being shallow — but there are enough gut-busting laughs to make up for its lack of depth.
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One of the things that is missing from Self Reliance that could have taken it to the next level is exciting set pieces. The finale shows the potential of what the film could have been — with the protagonist running through the streets through an ambush of larger than life characters. Had there been more of this throughout the entire movie.
Indeed, the emphasis of the execution of the film is more on the script and its jokes rather than suspense and physical humor. It’s a shame because the inherent absurdity of the premise would lend itself to some great visual gags, and the best we get is a joke about an assassin dressed like the comedian Sinbad.
It is surprising how compelling the movie is despite its character being relentlessly selfish. It seems clear that Johnson is building towards a redemption arc, but when that doesn’t turn out exactly as expected, it will leave viewers feeling rather empty. For a film whose stakes are literally life-or-death, it doesn’t do a lot to convince the viewer of its substance.
The ensemble is the biggest strength of the movie. This role obviously takes advantage of Johnson’s talents because he wrote it for himself. However, Johnson also gives opportunities to the rest of the ensemble to shine. Biff Wiff — who fans might recognize from his small role in Everything Everywhere All at Once — is absolutely hilarious. And Andy Samberg is fantastic in a ludicrous cameo that will catch viewers off guard.
Self Reliance is a very funny film, but one can’t help but feel like it doesn’t live up to the potential of its premise. It’s a case where it feels like the movie might have been limited by its budget, but there’s still something charmingly enjoyable about it.
Self Reliance screened at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, which runs March 10-18 in Austin, TX.
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