‘Self Reliance’: Jake Johnson Plays a Dangerous Game the Safest Way for His Directorial Debut  

Hulu’s likably offbeat “Self Reliance” is written, produced, and directed by Jake Johnson, who stars as Tommy, a contestant in a lethal-stakes reality competition show. Either that or he’s as crazy as his family believes. Johnson’s feature debut is a gore-free “Squid Game” with a screwball-comedy twist. The genre spiral is thrown in the competitive-Tug McGraw-on-the-mound way, by putting enough spin on an easy hit to get a ball into the catcher’s mitt. Everyone sees it coming. No one knows how it gets by.

Andy Samberg is incredibly well cast as himself, an actor hired as celebrity bait in a stretch limo with an offer he expects the unsuspecting Tommy to refuse: dodging trained assassins for 30 days for a million-dollar payoff. All Tommy’s adventures will be streamed as a show on the infamous and eternally frightening “Dark Web.” This represents a far more dangerous reality than commercial entertainment has yet to program, due to anticipated body count. In this, “Self Reliance” benefits from its lower budget. There are very few scenes where Tommy is actually in peril. The overall suspense leisurely grows to the point where you might root for Samberg to shove a samurai sword down Tommy’s throat in one of his two scenes. Samberg doesn’t even have anything remotely resembling a weapon on him, though the thought must have crossed his mind.

At the initial top-secret meeting with the illicit, unlawful, and international gaming executives with bank offices offshore Greenland, in a suitably covert concrete setting, Tommy hears a stipulation about collateral damage. Game rules allow a safety net around other people. The hunted can only be killed when they are alone. Tommy dubs this “the loophole.” James (Biff Wiff), a seemingly reliable homeless man, is initially paid to be the first defense, and is later given a promise which can’t be filled because of the edicts of the game. It is the highest-viewed, best-underplayed reality competition show in the world with the most at stake. 

The show’s Danish producers give off a vaguely sinister vibe delivered with gracious benevolence, and only a hint of intimidation. The production assistant ninjas tease nothing, seamlessly disappearing while unobtrusively deepening the paranoid atmosphere. The ninjas revel in their intrusive danger, offering cryptic clues for timely escapes, and proof the dangers exist. Tommy’s mother (Nancy Lenehan), sisters (Mary Holland and Emily Hampshire), and brother-in-law (Daryl J. Johnson) think he’s delusional. Christopher Lloyd is the father who left one very lasting impression. Natalie Morales plays the ex-girlfriend newly-assured that she made the right choice. Neither help Tommy’s case. Emerging details like assassins impersonating Ellen DeGeneres and Super Mario seem like standard escapist hallucinations. The ninjas render the story unbelievable, and the price is harsh. Tommy gets no support from his family, and the supporting cast is all but abandoned after introductions. 

Johnson makes Tommy very relatable. He’s hapless, not hopeless, at least after office hours. He is in a rut and he can’t fantasize his way out. What could really go wrong on a Dark Web show? It’s almost unfathomable to him. A million bucks for a 30-day run seems a reasonable gamble. If he loses, Tommy still gets the last word, by being dead, something he hopes won’t be lost on those not willing to be in close proximity to fend off assassins. 

“Self Reliance” mocks the reality television landscape in a way which is neither humiliating or clichéd. Ordinary people are regularly coached to do the wildest, most degrading, things for money, fame, or revenge. There is no greater vengeance than getting on TV, and if someone gets trashed, it only makes for better ratings, and deeper personal satisfaction. Ironic as it may seem, adding the Dark Web element to the “Survival” styled game makes the film less absurd. The ridiculous set-up delivers post-pandemic illusions about connection, confidence, and other feel-good tropes. Luckily, these are surreptitiously undermined by the very epitome of cookie-cutter distractions. 

Rumblings of romcom creep into the movie the same way love enters the truest romances: a Craigslist ad. Tommy is looking for a human shield, and finds himself a pillow’s throw from companionship. Anna Kendrick makes Maddy a much deeper character than written. Her eyes dart to every corner, but not for hidden hitmen. She is looking for emotions clouded under circumstance. Maddy is like a date, only honest, except when lying, which is persistent. She outlines exactly how the romance will go immediately, dishing it out like a dollop of casual foreshadowing. Johnson and Kendrick feed off each other and into each other, beat for comedic beat, as well as dramatic pivot. As Tommy’s excitement grows through a subsequent response to the ad, Maddy’s exuberance fades. The character’s arc expertly subverts expectations, allowing the romcom to fulfill a more cynical need. As far as avoiding assassination, she is tragically ambiguous. Maddy would be content to end the game in an empty room. 

Johnson casts a wide tonal net in his feature directorial debut. “Self Reliance” appears to hit all the mainstream comedy standards, but breaks small, crucial, rules. The overblown is understated. The feel is disjointed. The premise promises ridiculous wackiness, but the execution is unpredictable, subdued, and occasionally charmingly sloppy. Doo-wop singles vie with horror movie incidental soundscapes for quirky versatility. The cynic in this critic may have longed for a more cynically nihilistic conclusion, but “Self Reliance” achieves what the lead character and director each set out to accomplish; a slight break from the usual to alleviate boredom, and a step towards connection.

Self Reliance” begins streaming Jan. 12 on Hulu.