Self Reliance (2023) is a pleasant surprise, approaching its slick concept with humor, but also unexpected thematic depth and intelligent layering. Written, directed by, and starring Jake Johnson, the film charts the adventures of Tommy Walcott, an average joe whose life has become a tedious rut. Tommy’s daily grind is in for a massive shake-up when, out of the blue, Andy Samberg (playing himself) pulls up in a limo and invites him in. Tommy has been selected to participate in an edgy, dark web reality show, wherein he will spend a month eluding assassination. Why would Tommy risk his life like this? Because the rules of the game state that he can’t be killed if he is with another person; he’ll be the only one at risk. All he has to do to win a million dollars is spend a thirty days constantly in someone else’s company. Unfortunately, Tommy is a loner whose family thinks he’s losing his marbles, which leads him to extreme, life-changing measures to stay alive.
Johnson’s great comic work in Minx, Mythic Quest, and Stumptown, among others, has turned him into a performer to watch for me, and he brings his characteristic charisma to the table here. The support is nicely cast, as well. Anna Kendrick and Natalie Morales are terrific as the spunky women in Tommy’s life, while Samberg, GaTa, Emily Hampshire, Mary Holland, Daryl J. Johnson, Nancy Lenehan, Christopher Lloyd, and Biff Wiff all chip in with key roles. But it’s not just the ensemble work that sells this comedy; it’s a masterfully unsettling sense of tone. Given its premise, Self Reliance could have settled for merely being frantic farce, but Johnson tilts everything slightly askew, calling Tommy’s sanity in question as the zany surface action metaphorically mirrors the character’s internal struggle. The dissonant tone is helped by dark music and warped fisheye camera work, tempering the antics with enticing what-the-fuck vibes. In the end, whether Tommy is truly crazy or not is irrelevant; it’s enough that the journey took a potentially disposable concept and shot it through with heart and psychological insight. A weird, terrific little film, as thought-provoking as it is fun.