This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Sundance 2022 coverage.
Jesse Eisenberg, whose ability to weaponize awkward mania and/or self-conscious cruelty made him a movie star and earned him an Oscar nomination, adapts his own sprawling Audible Original in his directorial debut, the specific yet wanting When You Finish Saving the World. Eisenberg’s actorly specialties permeate the film, as do his associations with Bloomington and its Middle Way House, but his personal touch too briefly colors a script that’s suffered in the reduction from decades-spanning story of a complicated family into a simple snapshot of one’s present-day struggles. Prickly characters and a knack for mortifying situations strain to break free from When You Finish Saving the World’s limited and dispassionate plotting.
The relatively straightforward story of generational disconnect surveys the cultural cavern between pretentious social worker Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and her TikTok singer-songwriter son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard, reprising the role from the audio original). The self-involved pair don’t understand each other because, well, teenagers, but also because Evelyn is a preachy-cruel liberal and Ziggy is a doofus whose lyrics come from RhymeZone and whose voice sounds like Rivers Cuomo’s Bob Dylan impression. They’re bad to each other, and they’re looking for something different to make them whole. Ziggy gets lightly radicalized due to a crush on his politically active classmate Lila (Alisha Boe), while Evelyn fetishizes Kyle (Billy Bryk), the supportive blue-collar son of Angie (Eleonore Hendricks), a survivor staying at her shelter.
Lila and Kyle bear the burden of these two self-involved people looking to assuage their own need to be important—Boe and Bryk mostly stand around looking like they’d rather be anywhere else—and it’s kind of a pain to watch even though Wolfhard and Moore really sell their off-putting characters. Wolfhard’s got that “like and subscribe” cadence down pat and succeeds in making Ziggy just pure enough to be an oblivious but not detestable goober. Moore, especially when balanced by brilliant scene-steals from Jay O. Sanders (who plays Ziggy’s dad), adds depth to familiar contradictions: Biting yet well-meaning, charitable yet condescending. But as the pair work through Eisenberg’s washed-out Midwest, they’re met with less constructive contradictions.
Evelyn foists her goodwill and expectations onto Kyle while Ziggy fails to impress Lila. Both learn a little something in the process. It’s heartwarming, even twee plotting, which clashes with Eisenberg’s ear for dialogue. The movie’s usually too self-aware and intentionally embarrassing to be truly cutesy, yet that’s what the major dramatic beats try to provide. The world feels slight and depopulated, made worse by Lila and Kyle’s status as mere plot devices, but some scenes feel fully visually realized: Ziggy’s room and clothing are peppered with self-branding while he and Evelyn getting into an (inherently funny) smart car becomes slapstick. Compromises, born either from smooshing this thing into a sparse and abruptly ended 88 minutes or from translating an inventive audio project into a conventional indie drama, can make the movie feel as cheesy as one of Ziggy’s vapid ballads.
When the script really gets time to invest in its weird, dark worldview—when it’s allowed to sit in its pessimism for long enough to actually set us up for one of Eisenberg’s tension-relieving punchlines—the voice missing from some of the rest of the movie is clear. If Eisenberg proves anything with When You Finish Saving the World, it’s that he can coax great lead performances and write a hell of a teen suicide joke. Without some of the formal innovations of the Audible production (where the story develops through confessions to therapists or cassettes to young lovers), let alone its scope, When You Finish Saving the World lets us glimpse a filmmaking talent through a movie that seems to be pushing it away.
Director: Jesse Eisenberg
Writers: Jesse Eisenberg
Stars: Julianne Moore, Finn Wolfhard, Alisha Boe, Jay O. Sanders, Billy Bryk, Eleonore Hendricks
Release Date: January 20, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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