Self Reliance (2023)

Gave me movie got you movie

When you see the rating below, please understand that it took some restraint for me not to get even more carried away. It’s possible I am overrating this by a whole “Is It Good?” point due to my affection for the people involved, and yet I’m tempted to overrate it even more. I’m a total sucker for screwy, small-scale, high-strung thriller-comedies made by neurotic comedians. (I swear that’s a whole subgenre.)

Something else coloring my affection is that I love mumblecore films. Self Reliance really isn’t a mumblecore movie, but star/writer/debut director Jake Johnson is to the movement what Anna Karina was to the French New Wave, so inevitably some of that spirit rubs off on Self Reliance: There’s a sense that this film would only be made by whimsical weirdos in an era when you can get a set of film equipment for only a few thousand dollars. (This is certainly higher-budget than classic mumblecore, though.) Self Reliance feels like it was made because it was a Sunday afternoon and Johnson always kinda wanted to write and direct a movie like those Duplass brothers, so why not? Your appetite for that “fuck it” attitude will color your reaction to it.

The mumblecore vibes go even further than the irreverent, bootstrapped spirit. It’s in the narrative DNA as well. Self Reliance is an ambivalent look at messy relationships between poorly-adjusted, middle-class thirty-somethings featuring an inconclusive ending. Its narrative structure is anarchic, steering away from Syd Field textbook storytelling. (Some critics have mistakenly declared this film “streaming fodder”; no, it’s “forgotten, sloppily-assembled SXSW movie from the mid/late 2000s that subsequently ran once a week on IFC for a couple years” fodder.)

None of that makes Self Reliance good (or bad) on its own, of course. It just means that I personally will like it.

The film was conceived of by Johnson as a streaming TV series, and the transition into a single 95-minute script is a bit rocky. The film isn’t exactly rushed, but it is oddly shaped: boundaries for themes and narrative segments that would have formed the episodes are clear. (It made me think of last year’s Metal Lords in this regard.) But it’s not too jarring a cadence, and it’s very fun to watch. The wacky high concept is executed with self-deprecation and twinge of awkwardness that will be familiar to fans of Johnson’s oeuvre.

Tommy (Johnson) finds himself in a deep rut following a breakup with his longtime girlfriend Theresa (Natalie Morales). (In fairness to Tommy, I would be quite sad if Natalie Morales dumped me, too.) He lives with his mom and works a boring-ass office job. Then one day, while he’s walking the street, a limo pulls up beside him him; the window lowers and it’s Andy Samberg (whose introduction offers a funny meta-joke, in that we expect him to be playing someone else, not himself).

Samberg, along with a team of conspiratorial operators, have a proposition for Tommy: He can participate in a “dark web” game in which he will be closely monitored and hunted down by assassins trying to kill him. If he survives for 30 days, he wins a million dollars. The assassins are ruthless and can strike any time, even when he’s not expecting it, but there’s one catch — a “loophole,” as Tommy declares it: If he remains within a few feet of another non-assassin human, the assassins will not kill him. Thus, Tommy needs to find a way to remain in close quarters with other people at all times for a month straight.

Johnson, as writer-director, doesn’t bother pretending that this is anything other than a metaphor. In fact, it’s explicitly lampshaded multiple times: This challenge that Tommy has signed up for is a violent stand-in for his own confrontation with loneliness in the adult world. It is also a concave mirror reflection of the pandemic (and, indeed, the script’s first draft was written early in the 2020 lockdown): the absence of human contact within six feet can bring about invisible lethal danger, rather than the opposite.

The premise unfolds steadily and intriguingly, though somewhat artlessly: Johnson is primarily concerned with depicting the challenge in mechanical and humorous detail. He also spends a lot of time playing with the ambiguity of whether the entire thing takes place in his head rather than in real life. Though he acknowledges it, he’s much less interested in exploring the dark contradictions and pathos this brings out in the characters. Luckily, Johnson as director and writer finds just enough thematic depth and character development to keep it grounded and keep the audience caring whether Tommy makes a breakthrough.

The cast is stuffed with charismatic turns: Johnson is as delightfully scruffy and funny as ever. He carries the film with ease, wringing both laughs and humanity out of the scenario’s absurdity. Anna Kendrick (another mumblecore muse) is outrageously charming as another participant in the dark web game, a perfect foil for Johnson. Biff Wiff is lovably wholesome as a recurring homeless companion to Tommy. Mary Holland, Emily Hampshire, Nancy Lenehan make up Tommy’s skeptical family with great chemistry. And the film features a bunch of well-done cameos (and pseudo-cameos, a term I can’t really explain without spoiling).

As for the film’s craft and visual appeal… well, I did group it with mumblecore movies earlier, which should tell you everything you need to know. It’s not taking any swings, but it also knows you’re not here for the way the film looks. It’s content to simply not distract you with ugliness, and it achieves this goal.

So, overall, I can’t quite give Self Reliance a glowing endorsement, but I can profess that I enjoyed the shit out of it. It’s more fun and interesting than good, per se. But it’s funny enough to go down smoothly. And given this exact recipe of cast, premise, and storytelling vibe, there was almost no way I was going to dislike it.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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