Moving Pictures
Jan 19, 2024, 06:27AM

I Can Count On Me

Self Reliance made me think Jake Johnson has a bright future.

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The Game, David Fincher’s third film, released in 1997, was a thriller with Michael Douglas that had him as part of what resembled a massive life-like simulation, pitched to him as a “game.” The Game was marketed at the time as a psychological thriller, along the lines of Fincher’s previous film Seven, but I remember thinking it was hilarious, and I’ve felt similarly on subsequent revisiting of the film.

What Self Reliance, a new film now on Hulu, presupposes is, what if The Game actually was a comedy? The film, a South by Southwest debut last year that had a brief theatrical bow earlier this month, is the directorial debut of Jake Johnson, the actor best known for the long-running sitcom New Girl, although he had some movie roles back in the mumblecore era.

Johnson stars as Tommy, a lonely, cynical, recently-dumped guy who’s approached with a proposal, couched as a reality show premise: He’ll spend 30 days hunted by professional killers, and if can emerge from that period alive, he’ll be awarded $1 million. But the gimmick contains a loophole: as long as he’s not alone, he can’t be killed.

Adding to the surrealism, he’s first introduced to the game by actor Andy Samberg, playing himself (Samberg’s Lonely Island collective is among the production companies, and while I’ve always found its movies overrated, this is one of the better ones.) In addition to The Game, there are additional echoes of the 1998 diptych of The Truman Show and ED TV, as well as newer films like Squid Game.

It’s a premise that’s clever, even if it falls apart logically if you think about it for more than a couple of minutes. The “dark web” part of the plot doesn’t make any sense. If the reality show only exists on the dark web, how does it make any money, or justify the extreme expense of the $1 million prize, much less the continuous employment of numerous hitmen?

That said, the premise of Self Reliance also makes room for some enjoyable stuff, including Johnson doing what he’s always done best—bouncing off of a strong ensemble. A guy who’s been a loner all of a sudden has to depend on the company of others. And contra the Ralph Waldo Emerson-quoting title, his life depends on it.

Tommy starts a potential romance with Maddy (Anna Kendrick), who might be a fellow contestant, while Natalie Morales shows up as his ex. The great Biff Wiff, from I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, shows up as his homeless sidekick, while his family members (led by Mary Holland and Emily Hampshire as his sisters) think he’s lost his mind.

Self Reliance made me think Jake Johnson has a bright future.


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