What would you do if you could compete in a reality TV show for $1 million? Would you reconsider such an offer if your odds of survival were low? Enter Self Reliance, Jake Johnson‘s feature directorial debut that finds one man on the run for a month for a massive payday. 

About Self Reliance 

Here’s a synopsis of the film per Hulu: 

“When a middle-aged man is invited into a limo by famous actor Andy Samberg, his dull life takes a thrilling turn. Tommy (Johnson) is offered a chance to win a million dollars in a dark web reality TV show, where assassins from all over the world attempt to kill him for 30 days. The catch? He can’t be killed if he’s not entirely alone, leading him to recruit an unlikely team to help him survive.” 

Self Reliance stars Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Biff Wiff, Natalie Morales, Emily Hampshire, Andy Samberg, Daryl J. Johnson, Nancy Lenehan, Mary Holland, Wayne Brady and Christopher Lloyd. Johnson serves as writer, director and producer. The Lonely Island team are executive producers. 

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You Won’t Be Alone 

Full disclosure: I’m a devout Jake Johnson girlie and have been since his New Girl days. There’s a bit of Nick in Johnson’s portrayal of Tommy, but perhaps that’s more of his real-life personality. Johnson is always at home in a comedy, especially one with nuance, darkness and heart. He shines in Self Reliance. He keeps it relatively simple as a director, sitting back and allowing his talented cast to flourish without elaborate staging and complicated direction. That said, there are definitely fun directorial and camera choices that heighten the comedic moments. 

Tommy sits next to Andy Samberg in the back of a limo in the Hulu movie Self Reliance.

SELF RELIANCE. Photo courtesy of Hulu.

Johnson’s script wastes no time diving into the action. Three minutes into the film, Tommy meets Samberg and is thrust headfirst into reality TV madness. Instead of getting to know Tommy from the get-go, we learn more about him as the narrative progresses. 

Given the nature of the premise, it would’ve been easy for Johnson to whack us over the head with the film’s prevalent themes. Tommy and Maddy’s abject loneliness spurs them to finally step outside their comfort zones. One could argue it’s a metaphor for life in the wake of an isolating global pandemic. While those themes are cleverly laid out via Johnson’s unique story, they aren’t relentlessly driven home in a way that detracts from your enjoyment of the film. 

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To Rom-Com or Not to Rom-Com…

Johnson was clearly inspired by Garden State, as there are elements of it baked into the DNA of Tommy and Maddy’s relationship. However, he dangles that rom-com carrot without actually dropping it, which is strangely refreshing. This isn’t a romantic comedy. Sure, there’s a bit of romance and a hefty helping of comedy, but we never fully veer into the former territory. Instead, Johnson keeps us focused on what drives these characters to make radical life changes and stays with them as they move toward healing, separate from each other. 

Maddy smiles while sitting at a table in a dimly lit restaurant in the Hulu movie Self Reliance.

SELF RELIANCE. Photo courtesy of Hulu.

Returning to the performances, Anna Kendrick adds her inherently quirky charm to the mix, but it’s nothing groundbreaking. We’ve seen this work from her before. That’s not to say her performance is subpar, though. Really, Johnson’s Tommy takes center stage, and his development from beginning to end is fun to watch.

Throughout his time in this high-stakes reality TV series, Tommy mends fences with loved ones and moves on from past relationships. It speaks to how growth takes root when we barrel into the unknown, outside of what makes us comfortable. 

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The Company You Keep 

Biff Wiff is a highlight in Self Reliance as Tommy’s homeless buddy, James/Walter. He often steals scenes with effortless, understated comedic timing and genuine warmth. Emily Hampshire’s time on Schitt’s Creek has prepared her for this role. It’s a minor one, but it feels perfectly Stevie-like. Daryl J. Johnson is also a fun addition to this cast. His scenes with Johnson, in particular, elicited some of my biggest laughs. 

One thing I wish Self Reliance showed more of is Tommy’s attempts to outrun danger. I wanted more encounters with these global assassins and more murder attempts. While the high-octane nature of the plot is palpable during those moments of danger, any time we see Tommy employ the loophole (he’s safe when not alone), those stakes dissipate. Of course, you can only do so much in an 85-minute film. 

Walter and Tommy run through a street in the middle of a quiet neighborhood while holding hands in the Hulu movie Self Reliance.

SELF RELIANCE. Photo courtesy of Hulu.

Johnson’s feature directorial debut is uniquely and unadulteratedly him. He balances comedy and action well while leaving space for deep character work. Without delving into spoilers, the full-circle moment at the movie’s end is a nice touch.

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All in all, this film is a breezy, whimsical, amusing watch that utilizes an innovative concept to address emotionally resonant themes. Self Reliance is certainly not the biggest, boldest laugh-out-loud comedy on the market, but there are worse ways to spend 85 minutes. It’s a solid effort for a feature directorial debut.

I can’t wait to see what Jake Johnson cooks up next. I have a feeling his work will only improve from here. 

Self Reliance is now streaming on Hulu

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Melody McCune
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