THE STORY – Tommy receives an invitation to win $1 million by playing a game where he must outwit hunters attempting to kill him. He realizes the hunters can only attack him when he’s alone, but none of his friends and family believe the game is real.
THE CAST – Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Morales, Mary Holland, Emily Hampshire, Christopher Lloyd & Wayne Brady
THE TEAM – Jake Johnson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 85 Minutes
Thomas Walcott (Jake Johnson) feels like he’s stuck in a rut. Thomas is working in a boring job, going to the same sad bar every day after work, and living back at home with his mother after his long-time girlfriend (Natalie Morales) broke up with him. He has nothing going for him anymore. So when famous actor Andy Samberg pulls alongside him in a limo and tells him to get in, he goes for it. He also goes for it when he reaches the limo’s destination and learns he’s been selected as a contestant in “the most popular reality show on the dark web.” As long as he makes it thirty days without being killed by “the hunters” – people from all over the world sent to kill him – he will win $1 million. The hunters can’t kill him in the immediate presence of another person, so Thomas agrees, thinking he’s found a loophole that will get him an easy million bucks. The only problem is that no one in his life believes him, even when he almost gets killed. To Thomas, this is a life-or-death situation, but to everyone he knows, it’s a delusional manifestation of his loneliness and lack of direction in life. When he partners up with another player, Maddy (Anna Kendrick), will he finally find everything he needs to survive the game and start living his life again?
This light-hearted millennial spin on David Fincher’s 1990s thriller “The Game” represents Johnson’s feature debut as a writer and director, and he displays a strong command over tone that helps put over the absurd premise and offbeat humor. It helps that he’s playing the lead role himself, but every cast member is on the same page, bouncing off each other with a bemused energy that makes every scene a delight. That’s good because the plot pretty much goes exactly where you’d expect, with someone strange popping up every few minutes (with increasing frequency as the film goes on) that disappears as soon as Thomas gets someone else to look, leading them to think he’s crazy and leading the audience to question what is real. Along the way, Thomas digs deep to resolve his trauma and finds a new lease on life. It’s the almost surrealistic details that make “Self Reliance” pop, though – the ancient-looking book that the game-runners show Thomas when explaining to him how the game works; the black-sweatsuited production assistant “ninjas” that appear out of the shadows to help Thomas; the increasingly costume-like outfits the hunters wear. A sense of unease permeates the film, but Johnson’s assured hand as a director ensures that the film feels like fun instead of uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, Johnson, the writer, can’t quite figure out how to end his story. Just when the film seems to be going headlong into full-on surrealism, it sputters out, unable to sustain the absurdist energy long enough to end Thomas’s game in a satisfying way. The final scenes wrap everything up nicely enough, but the actual climax feels like a letdown. The film’s charming minor-key notes take over the tone, causing its energy to plummet just when it should be peaking, leaving the audience scratching their heads, wondering if that’s really all this has been building up to. The ending may be a disappointment, but the ride to get there is quite fun, often surprising, and consistently funny. Johnson makes for an appealing lead, and he has excellent chemistry with Kendrick, who manages to turn her manic pixie dream girl role into something with a bit more heft. “Self Reliance” is a promising first feature for Johnson, one that gives hope that he’ll get the ending as right as the rest of the script next time.