Jake Johnson and Biff Wiff co-star in

Imagine Andy Samberg rolls up to you in a limo and offers to change your life. Maybe you’re in a rut. Maybe you just like limos. “Who doesn’t?!” he’ll chirp with that signature goofy grin. Of course, you get in that ride, right? That’s the odd, intriguing inciting incident of Jake Johnson’s directorial debut, Self Reliance. And from its hook, it is outlandish, hilarious, and mind-bending.

Jake Johnson might be best known for his stint as the irascible-yet-adorable Nick Miller on New Girl. Or perhaps as the weary voice of a defeated Peter B. Parker in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse? In any case, his trademark rumpled charm is put to terrific use in Self Reliance, which he not only directed and wrote but also headlines. That alone is ambitious. But the twisting plot of this action comedy would test the skills of even a storied filmmaker. 

What’s Self Reliance about? 

Johnson stars as Tommy, a middle-aged man who is stuck in a rut. Since his long-time girlfriend dumped him, he’s living with his mom, and shuffling from her house to his office job to the front porch of his ex’s home, where he can’t bring himself to knock. He’s not living. He’s existing. Then, up pops Andy Samberg (The Lonely Island served as producers on the movie), with the proposition of “an adventure” that’ll change Tommy’s life. Of course, he says, “Fuck it, yes.” But from there, things will only get weirder. 

Tommy is ushered to an abandoned warehouse, where two old, blonde Swedish men jovially tell him he’s been chosen to play a dark web game show. The rules are simple: For 30 days, don’t die at the hands of the Hunters and you win a million dollars. Tommy might be an out-of-shape, ambitionless everyman. But he’s got hope in a loophole: he can’t be murdered if he’s with someone else. We’re talking within “striking distance.” So, this lonely man must eat, sleep, and poop with someone nearby…which is not as easy as it seems. 

Self Reliance crackles with a brilliant ensemble cast. 

Seeking help in this quest, Tommy turns to his sisters (a sharply irritated Mary Holland and an unflappably bemused Emily Hampshire), brother-in-law (a friendly but flummoxed Daryl J. Johnson), and his mom (a wonderfully authentic Nancy Lenehan). But they don’t believe him from the word “Andy Samberg.” It’s too absurd! They fear Tommy’s break-up has pushed him to a mental breakdown and refuse to enable his game. 

This pushes Tommy out of his comfort zone, seeking an obliging shadow first in a chipper unhoused man (the brilliantly funny and jovial Biff Wiff) and then another game player (a bubbly Anna Kendrick). Still, danger lurks around every corner. Assassins pop up ominous and oddly costumed. Production assistant “ninjas”— including Stranger Things‘ comic relief Eduardo Franco — slip acrobatically from the shadows to whisper warnings. Elsewhere, the likes of Gata, Wayne Brady, Natalie Morales, and Christopher Lloyd pop up for brief-but-bouncy bits. 

There’s a thrill in discovering who might pop up next. But beyond that, there’s a convivial “let’s put on a show” vibe to this cast, that welcomes us into what is clearly a passion project for Johnson. When presenting the film at its World Premiere at SXSW, he described Self Reliance as “the kind of indie I like to see.” Perhaps he meant the kind of indie where anything might happen or where a kooky concept scratches at the uncomfortable itch of being a human, like his 2012 indie hit, Safety Not Guaranteed. Whatever he meant, there’s plenty to admire in his debut. 

Self Reliance boasts bonkers visuals with a shrewd bit of grit. 

There’s a twisted whimsy to the film’s visual design, which bolsters its perplexing premise. When a hulking mustachioed intruder breaks in while dressed like Super Mario, it’s easy to chuckle at the absurdity, perhaps writing it off as a meme element demanded by the dark web audiences. But as Tommy tries to explain his experience to others, it’s just as easy to see why they think he’s losing his mind. 

Tonally, Johnson smoothly shifts from daffy comedy to jolting jump scares, deftly applying a slippery surrealness that urges audiences to see Tommy’s perspective while questioning his sanity. Is that a spy camera he’s found? Or is it a bit of junk? Are there killers stalking him? Or has his loneliness created a powerful delusion to pull him closer to people he’s too afraid to approach without threat of death? These possibilities crackle in our brains like pop rocks.

Jake Johnson delivers a shaky-but-satisfying directorial debut.

A terrific spontaneity comes into play when Kendrick enters as a possible ally and love interest. She and Johnson have a snappy chemistry. Their arc is delightful, studded with a sly parody of the honeymoon phase of a new relationship when you can’t BEAR to be apart for even a moment. However, the film loses its footing in its final act when it shifts abruptly out of rom-com mode. Tensions rise as Tommy’s safety net shreds, and the rollercoaster ride goes a bit off its axle.

Brandishing high concept, eccentric visuals, a star-studded cast, and a psychologically complex plot, Self Reliance is a lot for a first-time helmer to take on, much less pull triple duty as writer, director, and star. For much of it, Johnson’s passion is so visceral that it’s infectious. Tommy is presented as completely pathetic, but we rally with him in this outlandish quest for self-improvement. The casting alone shows what a terrific eye for talent that Johnson’s earned in his years as an actor. The flourishes of quirky costumes and oddball details (like the love interest’s Etsy shop specialty) bring a delightful uniqueness that strengthens the peculiar premise. But as the third act approaches, Johnson’s grip on the material loosens. The pacing slows to a crawl, the questions of the film’s logic bottleneck a bit. Then comes a walloping conclusion that — while exciting — is a bit of a headscratcher.

Still, even with this wobble, Self Reliance is an enthralling and wildly fun directorial debut. As an actor, Johnson has long worn his heart on his sleeve, projecting an appealing portrait of frenzied love and heaving anxiety. As a director, his empathy is apparent across his characters, as are his efforts to make every role worth taking. Each actor scores some silly business or scorching punchlines, making for a film that’s not just fun but also rollickingly entertaining.

In the hands of another director, its final act might have been more sharply honed. But it’s undeniable that Self Reliance still hits its mark. 

Self Reliance was reviewed out of its World Premiere at SXSW 2023.