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‘Self Reliance’ review: A million-dollar reality game is rooted in the unpredictable as a jolt to get a man to grow up

Jake Johnson’s take on a survival reality show brings a lot of thrills, but is unsure on where to land amongst it’s most prominent themes.

Saeed Adyani

Tommy (Jack Johnson) is in a mid-life rut after a breakup with his long-term girlfriend (played by Natalie Morales). At least he has a routine to fall back on – Tommy has moved back in with his mother and vacillates between getting on his exercise bike, going to a local bar, and walking to work. Between those stops is a burning desire to know why his relationship ended. This often leads to Tommy walking up to the front door of his ex, only to walk away.

But one afternoon, this monotonous life breaks in the zaniest way possible. While walking home, a limo pulls up to Tommy with Andy Samberg in it. (Yes, you read that right). He offers Tommy the adventure of a lifetime, and in dire need of spicing up his life, Tommy obliges to whatever Andy is proposing. (Andy is slightly surprised by Tommy's eagerness to agree to this). With this acceptance is a warehouse that contains two older Swedish men that let Tommy know he’s been chosen for a game. The premise of this dark web reality show is simple – he has to stay alive for 30 days while “Hunters” try to kill him. If Tommy manages to do this, he wins a million dollars.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, in theory, maybe. Johnson, first time in the directors' chair, leads into the zany absurdity of this premise. Tommy’s family doesn’t believe him, and honestly, would yours? His sisters take both sides of the emotional coin to a hilarious degree (our players, Mary Holland and Emily Hampshire). One wishes Tommy could get his life together, and the other is just surprised his scenario has come into his mind. His mother (played by Nancy Lenehan) tries to see this through, but it’s even too far-fetched for her.

Another wrinkle in the game is that he can't be killed as long as Tommy is near another person. It creates a specific funny scenario with his brother-in-law (played by Daryl J. Johnson). If there’s anything to admire from Self Reliance is how Johnson twists a self-realization story with a survival element. Here’s a man whose family thinks he’s walking into a nervous breakdown and won’t give in to what he’s telling him. However, this wacky scenario teaches Tommy about companionship and the urgency to try some new things.

This newness comes in the form of characters – Tommy needs a person to watch his back somewhat. So, he hires an unhoused man named James (Biff Wiff), with whom he gains an unexpected friendship. A Craigslist ad has Maddie (Anna Kendrick), another player in the game, reach out to Tommy – where the film reaches another thematic section. For the most part, Self Reliance confidently balances many of the tones it’s putting to the forefront. If you’re looking for suspense, Johnson provides moments of that. A little bit of romance and self-epiphany? There’s some of that, too.

It’s impressive how Self Reliance shows it has a command of all these things – at least in its first two/thirds. When the film elects to peer into the possibility of a romantic connection, it feels as if it’s unsure where to go after that. The scenes that Johnson and Kendrick share have you rooting for them to get to the bottom of whatever this live-action survival game is. Once a certain twist occurs, it feels as if Maddie falls to the wayside and, thus, the strong strands Tommy has built with her.

Is everything in Tommy’s head? Self Reliance swerves to keep you guessing. But within taking those detours, the film lets go of the main reason the main character is going through all this stress. I suppose there are more straightforward ways to undergo a crash course in self-improvement. Therapy. Exercise. Meditation perhaps? Jake Johnson’s first feature loves its unpredictability – even if it could make you scratch your head about what’s happening.