New Girl’s Jake Johnson, in Self Reliance plays a cankerous man, Tommy, who is offered the chance to appear on a reality show for the dark web. He lives an insular life, tied to a bland desk job and still pining for his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Morales). He doesn’t appear to have many friends or hobbies outside of work and his stationary bike. So, Tommy jumps at the chance to do something exciting when he gets approached to appear in a new dark web show.

Andy Samberg (playing himself) appears in a limo to explain the rules of this dangerous game. The show’s rules are simple. If he is ever alone over the 30 days, he will be killed by mysterious hunters. If he makes it, he will earn a massive sum of cash. Before Samberg can finish explaining the rules, Tommy enthusiastically agrees to meet a pair of eccentric TV producers.

It’s not an unrealistic setup. TV screens around the world are filled with people looking to humiliate and endanger themselves for money, fame, and notoriety. Tommy isn’t looking for glory. Although the prize fund won’t go amiss, he is simply bored with being a passive bystander in his own life. When he tells his family he must always be with someone, or he will be killed, they think he is having a mental breakdown. While Tommy goes along with the situation’s ludicrous, no one else around him does. His family’s reaction will likely mirror the audience as they try to take in the absurdity of what is being played out before them.

Jake Johnson and Andy Samberg in Self Reliance (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

Self Reliance only lightly touches on The Truman Show concept it presents early in the narrative. It doesn’t wholly lean into and acknowledge the absurdity of the modern phenomenon of reality television like it could. Millions of people a year will sign up to appear on shows where they are pushed into living if not dating strangers, and no one questions how strange this concept is. Self Reliance hints at this ideology but fails to explore or satirize it.

Tommy playfully refers to the producers as ninjas, silently creeping around in the background of his life. There is one genuinely terrifying scene where mysterious producers awaken Tommy, all clad in black, who acrobatically slip into the bedroom to tip him off about the show. Aside from a few scenes, Self Reliance could have further dissected the reality TV-making process and the lack of morals by many involved.

The show wants to see contestants outrun hunters, but Tommy, instead, relies on the loophole that if he’s never alone, they will never be able to catch him. Being forced into being with someone at all times helps Thomas confront some things about his existing relationships. It helps him cope with his breakup and strengthens his ability to care about others. It also allows him to deal with the estrangement from his father (an underused Christopher Lloyd).

When his family lets him down, Tommy enlists the nearest person he can find, who happens to be a good-natured bum, James (Biff Wiff). He then, in another way to play the rules in order to win, puts out a personal ad looking for other contestants. While Tommy lacks ambition, he doesn’t lack smarts, as he exploits every loophole in the show’s rules. One person responds to Tommy.

Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson in Self Reliance (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

Self Reliance changes tone when Tommy meets Maddy (Anna Kendrick). She replies to his Craigslist ad, and the duo decides to pair up, ensuring the other is not alone. Suddenly, the ironic comedy/drama softens until it becomes a quasi-romantic comedy. This meet-cute and subsequent nights spent together in a motel room start to muddy the movie’s message. Despite Kendrick’s natural charm, Maddy is underwritten and ultimately irrelevant to the film.

While Tommy and Maddy are never too far from danger, the stakes never feel high for our protagonists. The most significant danger for the characters in Self Reliance is them slipping out of their comfort zones and discovering something new about themselves. The zany characters and jolting jump scares may lead audiences to question Tommy’s sanity. Maybe his family was right to question the validity of his task.

Tommy (Jake Johnson) and (Biff Liff) in Self Reliance. (Photo: Courtesy of Hulu)

Despite the venture into softness, the movie fails to explore the itch of loneliness humans desperately have. It’s telling Jake Johnson wrote the screenplay for Self Reliance during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. At points, the writing and the performance are heartfelt and a wonderful exploration of how people connect with others. But Self Reliance would rather put out a funny costume or joke about a homeless person than explore anything beneath the surface level.

Despite the zany set-up, this film is more about humans seeking connection under pressure than it is about a deadly game show. It’s unsure if Self Reliance wants to be an absurdist parody on the search by reality TV producers to find new and more bizarre concepts or if it wants to be a dissection of the human condition. Either way, it fails to make an impact and wastes an innovative setup on farcicality.

The ending fails to tie the concepts of Self Reliance together. Some last-minute twists and turns will keep audiences engaged, but people ultimately may be left feeling cold.

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