Jake Johnson has made a handsome career for himself playing on his everyman qualities. His big break as Nick Miller in New Girl (2011-2018) cemented his particular affability, catapulting him into the mainstream, while 2018 brought Johnson’s specific brand of schlubby to Peter B. Parker in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Peter B. called upon Nick Miller’s boyishly aloof nature, casual crassness, and emotional shortcomings. Which is to say, Johnson popularly appears as a character stuck in stasis, both trapped by and smothering his own potential. That character framework is no different in Johnson’s directorial debut, which he wrote and stars in, aptly titled Self Reliance.
The film tells the story of Tommy (Jake Johnson), whose daily routine might be mistaken for a Groundhog Day-like cycle of endless repetition. Tommy leaves his (mother’s) house, goes to work at his dead-end job, and, finally, drinks alone at his favorite bar (or perhaps, the only bar empty enough to allow him the excuse of drinking alone). That is, until Andy Samberg (Andy Samberg) drives up next to him and offers him a chance at winning one million dollars. The catch? For one month Tommy will be hunted by an international team of assassins intent on murdering him, with the only stipulation being that he cannot be killed while in the presence of another person. Tommy is fatefully guided to Maddy (Anna Kendrick) as a partner in this game, and the two must learn to live with each other or otherwise risk dying alone.
Audience members can infer for themselves what will happen from here, the film following a basic Hollywood beat structure. If there is any surprise or intrigue to be wrung from the film, it’s only in its perplexing lack of surprise and intrigue. There’s little action, and what scant thrills there are feel weighted by Johnson’s clumsy direction, his camera seeming not to understand what the goal is in any given scene. “Auteurship” is not to be found here for Johnson, who can’t seem to define his voice while juggling his roles as star and writer. He does manage to stay above water as a performer, bringing forth genuine moments of catharsis for his character from the shallow terrain of the material; Kendrick, on the other hand, falls surprisingly flat as the mysterious love interest. It’s a shame, because it seems to be perhaps a quirk of the script that forces her into the most cardboard possible vessel for what would seem to be, on paper, some hyper-meta take on the “manic pixie dream girl.”
And so, for every promise of grandeur Johnson makes, audience trust erodes a little more when his attempts usually fail to deliver even a smile. If there’s a bright spot to be found in the whole affair, one could point to Biff Wiff’s turn as James, a homeless man Tommy befriends early in the film. Wiff is allowed to fully embrace the absurdity of his role, riffing on the happenings of any given scene, elevating any room he is in with his signature growling laughter and immediate ability to make himself a warm, welcome retreat from Johnson’s otherwise tired jokes. But Self Reliance taken as a whole, unfortunately, seems to mirror Tommy’s own pre-Samberg life — going through the motions expected of it, never departing from its banal routines, haplessly content to revel in its own mediocrity.
DIRECTOR: Jake Johnson; CAST: Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Andy Samberg, Natalie Morales; DISTRIBUTOR: NEON/Hulu; IN THEATERS: January 3; STREAMING: January 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 29 min.