Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg is mostly associated with quirky, comedic dramas that reflect or analyze modern, coastal sensibilities. Whether working with Woody Allen (Café Society, To Rome With Love), focused on society’s frustratingly selfish values (The Social Network), or delighting in amusing irreverence (Zombieland, Adventureland), the cerebral actor is evidently drawn to a certain aesthetic, so it’s not surprising, then, that for his feature debut as a writer/director, Eisenberg chose to tell a story in that familiar deadpan style, one that is imbued with themes such as the inherent solipsism of today’s culture.
In other words, When You Finish Saving the World, an A24 production that opened this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, is pretty much what you’d expect from Eisenberg — comedic highs and pretentious lows included. The commercial appeal of this title beyond being a very small arthouse darling is difficult to imagine, even if it manages to fit squarely within Sundance and its audience’s tastes.
When You Finish Saving the World tells the story of Evelyn Katz and her teenage son Ziggy, played modestly but convincingly by Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard. Evelyn and Ziggy are very much 2022 denizens (minus COVID), at least to the extent that social media, viral videos, and environmental concerns permeate their daily existences. Evelyn runs a shelter for domestic abuse survivors and is self-assured in the correctness of her views and the societal impact of her work. Ziggy spends most of his time trying to impress his politically-minded (female) classmates or singing and producing videos aimed at increasing his online presence, which he somewhat pathetically boasts (repeatedly) as including 20,000 YouTube followers.
On a fundamental level, When You Finish Saving the World tells the age-old tale of teenagers being unable to get along with their parents. Evelyn absentmindedly walks into Ziggy’s room in the middle of a live stream, provoking his ire and the installation of a spinning red light outside his room that warns his parents when he’s recording. Ziggy talks back to his parents at the dinner table (when he isn’t storming off) and explicitly rejects their (very liberal, post-modern) set of values.
On a deeper plane — presumably, the one Eisenberg wishes to operate on — the movie sets out to analyze, critique, and even mock the motivations of those who fashion themselves “good citizens” of the world. As telegraphed by the sarcasm in the film’s title, Evelyn and Ziggy think highly of themselves, and that their motivations are pure and their aspirations worthy when, in reality, both are tremendously self-involved and ultimately selfish individuals, to the point of near madness.
To offer but a quick example, in one particularly damning scene in the film, Evelyn and Ziggy are simultaneously exposed for missing a lifetime achievement ceremony thrown in honor of the third member of their family, the neglected patriarch (Jay O. Sanders). Evelyn was too busy with her creepily intrusive work at the shelter, Ziggy distracted trying to impress his politically-active classmates.
In another illustrative and well-constructed incident, Evelyn and Ziggy face off in the car about the latter’s lack of awareness regarding the modern themes that a well-to-do liberal might read about in The New Yorker. Ziggy asks his mother if she thinks he could be savvy about the issues of the day. A loving mother would presumably lie, answer ‘yes,’ and point her son in the right direction. Instead, Evelyn decries that she used to take Ziggy to all the marches du-jour when he was a boy but that he has now become disinterested in everything but his electric keyboard. She admonishes him to “read and learn,” while he plaintively tells her off. Of course, Ziggy does not really care about the Middle East, the environment, or any capitalist overthrow of society. He just wants to get the girl (Alisha Boe).
Evelyn’s self-assuredness that her values are the right ones runs so deep that she ultimately engages in creepy, borderline stalking behavior with a young boy (Billy Bryk) at the shelter who reminds her of the son she wishes Ziggy would be. Not only is Evelyn’s behavior awkward and weird, but it also represents a misguided attempt to impose her views of how the world should “properly” function on someone who simply comes from and aspires to a different set of values.
Ziggy, meanwhile, purports to adapt his newfound socially-aware purpose into music in the hope of increasing its global impact against “The Man,” though he simultaneously boasts about how much money he made from peddling it online. Evelyn’s and Ziggy’s heads are so far up their respective behinds that they simply cannot understand how or why their behaviors are viewed and rejected by others. The conflict between them is but a microcosm of a grander problem with each of them — they may think they are each saving the world, but the truth is that they both suck.
Yet, despite the daringly refreshing, self-aware critique that Eisenberg offers in When You Finish Saving the World, the film repeatedly trips over itself, dragged down by the very personality flaw that it skewers. It is not only that the teen vs. parent rivalry premise is overwrought and predictable (though it is) and it is not just that these characters’ self-involved nature makes them as unlikable and unwatchable as the modern folks they parody (though, they are). More fundamentally, the film itself is as selfish as its protagonists, as it becomes nothing but a vehicle to express Eisenberg’s (perhaps correct) views as to what is wrong with today’s society without offering much beyond things most of us already observe.
On a deeper level, When You Finish Saving the World seems to reflect the life stage of its plainly clever and introspective author. Eisenberg is no longer Ziggy, no longer the teenager searching for answers and popularity where he can find them, willing to do or say whatever it takes to simply be liked. But he isn’t quite Evelyn yet, either. He isn’t so set in his ways and views that he believes them to be some kind of sacrosanct creed. Instead, Eisenberg stands in the middle, smartly observing the ridiculousness of both extremes, and perhaps worryingly grasping for a happy medium. Unfortunately, these are all intimately personal and, therefore, selfish exercises that are unlikely to compel most people who don’t already share Eisenberg’s myriad anxieties, as they reflect nothing more than the self-centered nature of the film’s protagonists.
The greatest quality of When You Finish Saving the World may just be how daring it is. We all know that signaling the wrong virtues can quickly land you in trouble in today’s scandal-obsessed world. But bravery alone does not a good film make. A compelling, memorable story is typically required and is most glaringly missing from the clever Eisenberg’s nevertheless promising directorial debut.
A24 is expected to release When You Finish Saving the World in theaters later this year.