Jake Johnson & Biff Wiff in Self Reliance.

Review: ‘Self Reliance’ Is A Sometimes Sweaty Film To Root For From A Director Who Is Intimately Familiar with Messy Underdogs

Jake Johnson & Biff Wiff in Self Reliance.
Jake Johnson & Biff Wiff in Self Reliance. Courtesy of Hulu.

Jake Johnson is a better actor than he gets credit for. Like Lamorne Morris, Max Greenfield, or David Krumholtz, he’s sturdier than almost anyone, more emotionally elastic, but seen as a second or third bill as opposed to a lead. In Self-Reliance, he makes a case for himself, but is unfortunately limited by the dual responsibility of directing himself in his first feature. The film is mostly engaging, and even powerfully sad in some parts, but directorial debuts are rarely flashes of brilliance so much as they are calling cards for investors to buy into their future promise. If Johnson is looking to get a blank check for a second film, he’s likely succeeded. If he’s looking to argue he should anchor more films, he may have to settle for what he has. 

In the best episode of the series Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, Johnson gives a beautiful performance as one-half of a video game company’s founders, being silly, romantic, sexy, smarmy, difficult, and everything else he has talent for. He’s anchored throughout by someone as good, if not better than him: the magnetic and shrewd Cristin Miliotti. As with a lot of actors, Johnson is at his best when he has someone equal challenging him to be present and vulnerable. To this end, Johnson’s best acting is when he’s working with his friend, Anna Kendrick, who has starred with him in three different films, and who has genuine chemistry with him on screen. Here, the two play lonely people who connect over being participants in a game where the only way to win is to never be alone. There’s a scene early on where they dance at a club, and it’s so perfectly winning that it transcends acting and reveals two people who know and see one another beyond celluloid. There’s a lot of dancing in their time together, and every time it feels candid, like the camera is showing you something real. When Kendrick’s time in the film wraps, the film resets and never finds itself again until the very end. 

Overall, the film situates itself between Palm Springs and Mulholland Drive, wanting to be a 2024 film with the dressing of the early aughts, and the vibe of 1980s comedies that go nowhere. However, Johnson has a goal, and the scripting keeps things on track to wrap up neatly. After Kendrick exits, the film goes a bit more nuts, but feels empty and haphazard. A scene with Christopher Lloyd as his absent father showing up after thirty years feels emotionally miscalculated, more like an intentional David Lynch decision than something that fits into the more grounded depression of Johnson’s world. Andy Samberg, who produces this, feels wonderfully miscast as himself, picking up Johnson as a character, and asking him to participate in the game. It plays less well than it should because Samberg clearly did it as a favor, and playing himself, a man in his forties, makes his cheerful goofy-boy thing feel sad. Johnson has a quick conversation with his ex (played by genius actor and creator Natalie Morales) after 23 years together. Morales, who can make anything work usually, doesn’t quite get to the temperature she needs for the scene, and Johnson, split between acting and getting to the next scene for that day’s shoot, doesn’t help. These aspects are sweaty, but they’re not unusual for someone new to directing. 

The good of the film is generated by how much fun everyone seems to have being there with Johnson. There’s a menschiness to him in real life, and here that results in a certain trust, even if not every performance is perfect. Outside of Kendrick and Johnson, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with characters, even when they eat up a lot of screen time. Daryl J. Johnson and Tamra Brown absolutely rule for the brief screen time they get, but Sky Elobar, who is a scene partner for Johnson throughout, doesn’t quite elevate the film beyond a dopey sweetness he brings to his character. On his own, Johnson manages to dance between comedy and bleakness, as he gets a broken tooth that looks silly no matter how long you see it, and ends up living with the unhoused for a few days, putting the question on the audience as to whether or not the game isn’t real, and just the unraveling of a broken man. These scenes, outside of those with Kendrick, are the best of the film, because they show Johnson capable of doing something new, and confidently directing. 

Overall, the film is something like a future cult classic. It would be good to have more Jake Johnson in the world (he seems like a solid, ally-type of person), but hopefully he learns from the mistakes of this film. In a parallel world, this debut was he and Anna Kendrick falling in love for ninety minutes while they survive a game that tests and bonds them in profound and beautiful ways. Oh well, maybe next time.

How to watch Self Reliance.

Jake Johnson's directorial debut, Self Reliance, begins streaming on Hulu January 12th!

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