Jake Johnson's Strange New Movie Finds Joy in a Fight for Survival
The internet heartthrob’s directorial debut is a delightful fable about connection.
Making a low-budget sci-fi movie only really has two outcomes. You can swing for the rafters and attempt to make a new Star Wars, but without the production value to match, it usually ends up looking more Ed Wood than Hollywood. The only other option isn’t the most appealing, but it is the most reliable: scale down your story to something more mundane and rely on the script and the performances to make up for the lower production value.
There’s no better example of this than Jake Johnson’s directorial debut Self Reliance, a lo-fi tale of fighting for your life and then trying to like that life. It doesn’t try to be more than it is, and with that perspective, it ends up being more than expected.
Johnson plays Tommy, the epitome of the “down-on-his-luck” protagonist. Dead end job? Check. Depression? Absolutely. Recent breakup? Try a girlfriend of 23 years moving on and having a kid.
But everything changes when Andy Samberg (playing himself) pulls up in a limousine and offers Tommy the chance to change everything. Tommy’s been chosen for a dark web TV show, and if he can survive 30 days with assassins after him, then he wins a million dollars. The twist? They can’t touch him when he’s with another person. Suddenly, Tommy’s loneliness isn’t just a midlife crisis: it’s a matter of survival.
His first thought is to turn to his family, but when that doesn’t work out, he hires James (I Think You Should Leave standout Biff Wiff) to be his constant companion, and together they spend two heady weeks hanging out. But when Mandy (Anna Kendrick) reaches out to say she’s playing the game too, Tommy is forced to confront who he can trust — and if he even can trust at all.
The Truman-Show-meets-Most-Dangerous-Game premise is the backdrop for Johnson’s talent as a writer, director, and star, oozing with the self-deprecating charm that made everyone fall in love with him in New Girl and Minx. He bumbles through each encounter with the “ninjas,” as he calls the hunters, a cryptically helpful production assistant (an always-great Eduardo Franco), and a string of guest stars with the “sure, why not” enthusiasm that echoes After Hours.
The freshest part of Self Reliance is the story, which takes after a recent trend in lo-fi sci-fi movies: plots that work, beat-for-beat, like episodes of The Twilight Zone. Other examples of these “Twilight Zone movies” can be found in the crevices of streaming services if you know where to look: Apple TV+’s Fingernails, Netflix’s Oxygen, or Hulu’s own Palm Springs. Even A24’s recent Nic Cage vehicle Dream Scenario fits this niche subgenre perfectly.
While Self Reliance isn’t science fiction by any stretch of the imagination, it still manages to be the epitome of a “Twilight Zone movie,” starting with an unwitting protagonist in a strange situation packed with constant absurd twists, and ending with a firm moral. Tommy realizes after a month of living with other people that he can actually live with himself. It may not be the most groundbreaking discovery, but it’s about the journey, not the destination.
The way Johnson has fun with the premise but treats the lesson Tommy learns with dead seriousness would make Rod Serling proud. He crafts a modern-day fable that leans into its own ridiculousness, using a low budget to tell a story that morphs from rom-com to conspiracy thriller and back again.
It’s the fever dream version of one man’s journey to healing, but why would you want to watch any other version? This one’s way more fun.