North Texas Daily

SXSW 2023: Jake Johnson’s ‘Self Reliance’ is a hilarious, but disjointed directorial debut

SXSW 2023: Jake Johnson’s ‘Self Reliance’ is a hilarious, but disjointed directorial debut

SXSW 2023: Jake Johnson’s ‘Self Reliance’ is a hilarious, but disjointed directorial debut
March 16
03:40 2023

AUSTIN, Texas — Jake Johnson entered the stage of The Paramount Theatre to a room of thunderous applause after the premiere of his directorial debut, “Self Reliance” on March 11. Joined by his co-star Anna Kendrick and other project crew members, Johnson revealed his curious elevator pitch for the 90-minute film during a Q&A session: “‘Jacob’s Ladder’ with some laughs.”

Anna Kendrick smiles during a panel following the world premiere of “Self Reliance” on March 11, 2023. Maddie Moore

“I watched ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ I love it so much, and I do get some laughs,” Johnson said. “And I thought, ‘What if you fill it with really funny people, and you actually push the laughs, but it’s scary and you’re not sure what’s happening and you’re along for a ride?’”

“Self Reliance”’s Tommy (Johnson) is the lonely, down on his luck protagonist who’s grown bored of his life. After receiving an offer from a limo-riding Andy Samberg, Tommy signs up for a dark web reality game show, where he soon becomes the target of a slew of human hunters. If he manages to evade the killers for 30 days, he walks away with $1 million — more than enough to move out of his mom’s place.

The game has one loophole: Tommy can only be attacked when alone. His plan to get some long overdue quality time with disconnected loved ones backfires when none of his friends or family believe the game is real. Tommy then scrambles to keep a lasting companion (Kendrick) while trying to retain his dwindling sanity.

The idea for “Self Reliance,” a collaboration with The Lonely Island, came to Johnson over five years before its conception. At the Q&A, Johnson said while the film’s initial pitch to Netflix failed in 2017, he found reason to take a crack at its screenplay three years later in the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Prior to the screening of “Self Reliance,” Director and lead actor Jake Johnson speaks about the film on March 11, 2023. Maria Crane

 “When the pandemic hit I felt like truth became subjective — I was missing everybody,” Johnson said. “The idea of doing something that would be exciting and wild became something I could see somebody doing, and I thought, ‘I’m going to try to write it now, and if the world comes back, I’m going to try to make it.”

Despite sudden interjections of reflective tones, “Self Reliance”’s less serious scenes steal the show. With comedic hits like “New Girl” and “Minx” under his belt, it’s obvious that Johnson knows funny and can execute it well. His signature delivery left audiences in fits of roaring laughter throughout the screening.

Outside of Johnson’s own performance and writing, his knack for comedy is even more evident through his casting choices. Johnson features many of his comedic connections, including the quirky likes of Kendrick, Samberg and Emily Hampshire. The natural chemistry shared amongst the actors only further highlights the film’s silly strengths.

Despite a roster of some of Hollywood’s most recognizable names, it’s the lesser known Biff Wiff who steals the show. Wiff plays James, Tommy’s friend-for-hire. The offbeat banter between the two, as well as James’ own one-lined moments, are some of the film’s strongest scenes.

Jake Johnson is interviewed by Cynthia Littleton during the panel, “Featured Session: A Conversation with Jake Johnson,” in the Austin Convention Center on March 13, 2023. Samantha Thornfelt

While scattered bits and jokes generated more than enough chuckles throughout the theatre, they did little to flesh out any substantial plot points.

Addressing the feelings of loneliness and disconnection through comedy is by no means an easy task to conquer. While the film’s attempt at such sentiments can be appreciated, “Self Reliance”’s abrupt conclusion proves it’s far too ambitious for a first-time director to master.

The film struggles to balance its heavy underlying themes against its quip-centric dialogue. Scattered tones and frequent focal shifts result in unresolved plot holes and hazy story building. 

Johnson’s humorous take on “The Most Dangerous Game” does little to lean into the more complex inspirations of its darker source materials. Promising teases of psychological twists are scattered across scenes, building up anticipation and expectations. However, audiences are only met with an anti-climactic story peak and abrupt conclusion.

Johnson spoke more about the film’s complex approach in a featured session at the Austin Convention Center two days after its premiere. Joined on stage by Variety’s Co-Editor-in-Chief Cynthia Littleton, the actor implied the original ending took a more mental approach.

“We had a different one,” Johnson said. “And we put it in front of audiences and it just brought up so many questions that we kept kind of changing it and messing with it. […] The ending was a lot of discussions in front of different people.”

Perhaps the reasoning behind such questions was the director’s 19-day production time. Johnson revealed this timeline at the premiere’s Q&A and has since echoed that the short span is not unusual for an indie film, a production type he takes pride in creating. While this is true, such a restrictive environment does nothing to benefit the film’s complex potential.

Josh Horovitz interviews the cast and crew of “Self Reliance” on March 11, 2023. Maddie Moore

As Tommy descends further into the game’s madness, audiences also find themselves floundering for their own answers. Unexplored character backgrounds and vague contextual plot hinders the film from hitting its intended mark. While attempting to signify the importance of human connection, “Self Reliance” ultimately distances itself from any real human element.

At the featured session, Johnson said he appreciates films leaving certain elements up to interpretation at the end. These artistic choice may be appropriate for certain comedy formats, but not one that leaves so many unanswered questions as “Self Reliance.”

Overall, Johnson still took an ambitious approach to the traditional concept of comedy, and his efforts should not be overlooked. “Self Reliance” may have had a more dynamic ending under more experienced direction, but Johnson’s potential is not yet lost.

For now, audiences will just have to wait and see how the actor-turned-director will fare in the future, and what other comedian cameos he has in store.

Samantha’s rating: 3/5

Featured Image Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Ali Bell, Joe Hardesty and Adam Silver of “Self Reliance” speak during a panel following the screening on March 11, 2023. Samantha Thornfelt

About Author

Samantha Thornfelt

Samantha Thornfelt

Related Articles


No Comments Yet!

There are no comments at the moment, do you want to add one?

Write a comment

Write a Comment

The Roundup

<script id="mcjs">!function(c,h,i,m,p){m=c.createElement(h),p=c.getElementsByTagName(h)[0],m.async=1,m.src=i,p.parentNode.insertBefore(m,p)}(document,"script","");</script>

Search Bar

Sidebar Thumbnails Ad

Sidebar Bottom Block Ad

Flytedesk Ad