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‘Self Reliance’ reminds us that we need others, with humor

One hundred years ago, Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” was published in Collier’s magazine. Since then, there’s been no shortage of stories showing the wealthy hunting the poor for sport. With the rise of the game show, that became the new story: not merely hunting for fun but watching people being hunted as entertainment.

From “The Running Man” to “Squid Game,” there is a fascination with the lengths people will go to in order to amuse themselves. The latest in this genre is Jake Johnson’s directorial debut “Self Reliance,” currently streaming on Hulu.

Tommy (Jake Johnson) doesn’t have much going on in his life. He and his long-term girlfriend (Natalie Morales) broke up. He works at a job that he doesn’t care about. He lives with his mom. So when Andy Samberg pulls up in a limo and offers him the opportunity to participate in a game where he can win $1 million, Tommy jumps at the chance. The rules are simple: Hunters from around the world will come after him and he must survive for 30 days. The main caveat is that if he is within a few feet of someone, he cannot be killed. When he connects with Maddy (Anna Kendrick), another competitor, the two of them try to beat the game together.

This film was a fun twist on the man-hunting thriller. It is, first and foremost, a comedy, so while there is some tension in the movie, I never felt like the stakes were high enough to cause actual anxiety. Most of the comedy hits well, with a few laugh-out-loud moments.

The cast seems like they were having a fun time with this film. Kendrick and Johnson work well together, as does Tommy’s other shadow, Biff Wiff, who plays James, the homeless man Tommy hires to stay with him. Some of the funniest interactions are when Tommy tries to explain what is happening to him to his family. Nancy Lenehan, as his mother, along with Emily Hampshire and Mary Holland as his sisters, deliver some of the best lines in the movie.

The story does feel rushed in a few places, particularly with the relationship between Maddy and Tommy. I wished that Johnson, who also wrote the film in addition to directing and starring in it, had spent a little more time fleshing out that relationship. The themes of loneliness and predictability could have been examined more thoroughly, but it does the job well enough for a comedy.

Last year, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report on the epidemic of loneliness plaguing many people. Even prior to the COVID pandemic, people were experiencing isolation. While “Self Reliance” doesn’t offer any significant answers to this sense of separation, it does remind us that when we’re under a threat, we’re better off finding people to stick close to rather than trying to go it alone.

ALISE CHAFFINS is a Morgantown writer who loves movies and sharing her opinions. She reviews a movie from a streaming service every Saturday and one newly in theaters every Sunday. Find more at MacGuffin or Meaning on Substack.