Self Reliance

Self Reliance
Self Reliance
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Some movies were made during the pandemic, and some were made because of it; for years, debuting director Jake Johnson had been kicking around the idea for “Self Reliance,” but it took COVID to get him to make it. Because as soon as we went into lockdown, the “New Girl” actor’s absurdist concept — about a sad-sack who is so bored with his life that he agrees to risk it in a “Most Dangerous Game”-style reality show — gained both depth and relevance. Coming up for air, Johnson serves up a silly and often surprising why-we-need-people parable that relies on laughs instead of peril.

The helmer plays Tommy, who’s been sleeping at the wheel of his own existence since forever — until one day famous dude Andy Samberg (also among the film’s producers) randomly pulls up in a stretch limo and offers him a ride. Should he take it? Probably not, but Tommy’s bored enough not to decline, agreeing instead to meet a pair of eccentric producers who inform him that he’s been selected for a chance to win $1 million. All he has to do is survive 30 days while highly trained “hunters” try to kill him.

Like a lo-fi, gore-free “Squid Game,” the competition described in “Self Reliance” is hardly cutting-edge entertainment, and Tommy trusts too much in the producers’ integrity not to trick him. The first few days, Tommy suspects everyone around him might be out to snuff him. Just when he starts feeling safe, Tommy spots a guy with a rifle in his yard and decides maybe he should call on his friends and family for protection. Trouble is, what he’s describing sounds so stupid nobody believes him — not his mom, not his sisters (Mary Holland and Emily Hampshire) — so as soon as they abandon him, he becomes vulnerable.

Now think about it: Some movies throw out a vaguely “Twilight Zone”-y situation like this and then focus on something else — maybe action, possibly laughs, even psychology. But Johnson’s a stickler for rules. I personally love the logical yet unpredictable way his brain works; within his oeuvre, “Self Reliance” is most like offbeat comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed,” where the logistics of time-travel become half the joke. Both as creator and lead character, he spends most of the movie trying to exploit “the loophole,” which says that when Tommy’s in proximity of at least one other person, the hunters can’t touch him. But who says what company he can keep?

When his loved ones let him down, Tommy recruits the first sucker he finds: James (Biff Wiff), an affable bum who proves easily convinced to serve as Tommy’s constant companion — and who, with his missing front teeth and Salvation-Army-Santa beard, becomes a reliable (never mean-spirited) source of laughs. In another shrewd move, Tommy posts a personal ad seeking other contestants, hearing back from Maddy (Anna Kendrick), a peppy pathological liar who signs on for his next plan: If these two stick together, they should be able to avoid assassination.

Maddy is much more impulsive than Tommy, who has a natural instinct to keep his head down. Her influence on him is beneficial because why protect your life when you don’t have one worth protecting? It’s not until he starts hanging out with Maddy and making friends with James that Tommy begins to find some meaning in his life — tellingly, he all but stops showing up for work. Pretty much everyone else thinks he’s gone mad — and can you blame them? Tommy isn’t exactly equipped to defend himself in hand-to-hand combat, and were it not for the occasional pep talk from the show’s ninja-like production assistants, this entire thing could be taking place inside his own head.

Let’s say it were. The show is essentially an antidote for complacency, which has kept our sad sack of a hero from reaching his full potential for years. Johnson gives the character a grudge against his dad and some unresolved questions about the ex-girlfriend who dumped him. Turns out, the game is just what Tommy needed to get back in gear, and that rule about being safe so long as he’s not alone serves him well, too — after two years of self-isolating (which should ring true for most people emerging from lockdown), he craves company.

Having made several movies already at this point in his career, Johnson operates like a pro — he’s thought things through enough that there aren’t many plot holes. That said, it’s hard not to imagine a million other directions “Self Reliance” might have gone. For starters, there’s little actual jeopardy here: Tommy rarely seems in danger. Not that Johnson needed to turn this into an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (“The Running Man” comes to mind), but the premise teases a month of mayhem only to deliver a friendship comedy whose meaning rests on proven talents Samberg brings from another context: “Palm Springs” (which, come to think of it, also involved a drastic situation that needed to throttle somebody out of their routine). Tommy needs the push more than he needs the million dollars.

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