‘When You Finish Saving the World’ Review: Dueling Narcissists Battle in Jesse Eisenberg’s Terrific Debut

Eisenberg's first movie behind the camera, starring Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard, splits the difference between Noah Baumbach and Miranda July in a way that still allows his own voice to break through.
"When You Finish Saving the World"
Beth Garrabrant

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. A24 releases the film in theaters on Friday, January 20.

A recent monologue night at New York’s Jane Hotel ended with actor Jesse Eisenberg telling a long and charmingly logorrheic story about the massive crush he once developed on a radical teenage leftist during the early 2000s. He was an ultra-neurotic Jewish kid who worshipped at the altar of Woody Allen, while she was a budding revolutionary who preferred the droll comedic stylings of Howard Zinn; her mom ran a woman’s shelter, her dad wrote fiery screeds in support of Nicaraguan liberation, and her new boyfriend memorized socialist flashcards in a cute-sad effort to hold a conversation with anyone in the family. It might be a while before he wrapped his brain around the difference between the Contras and the Sandinistas, but he desperately wanted to be the kind of person who knew what it was.

That Eisenberg obviously cared a lot more about the girl than any of her pet causes didn’t stop her from inviting him on a humanitarian trip to Central America a few months into their relationship, just as it didn’t stop her from marrying him a decade or so later, but the humiliation of trying to love someone on unilateral terms — for what you can take from them, with little regard for what they might need from you in return — seems to have scarred him all the same. That cringy dynamic was a major source of energy for the audio drama Eisenberg launched in the summer of 2020. It’s even more pronounced in the cuttingly poignant and cyanide-sweet movie he’s adapted from it, which stars Finn Wolfhard as a dopey live-streamer infatuated with the Karl Marx of his high school chemistry class, and sees Eisenberg continue a recent Sundance trend of famous actors delivering excellent debut features (Paul Dano’s “Wildlife,” Romola Garai’s “Amulet,” and Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” being three of many standout examples).

But the star-crossed teen romance thing is just one half of the story, as “When You Finish Saving the World” only drills into Ziggy Katz’s car crash of a crush on Lila (Alisha Boe) because it so clearly mirrors his mom’s own self-absorption and reflects how they’re both failing each other. Neither of them are monsters, but they each have their moments. Ziggy is a narcissistic product of the social media age who wears way too much of his own merch, and saves what’s left of his sweetness for the 20,000 tweens who subscribe to his online music channel (he describes his stuff as “classic folk rock with an alternative influence,” which is a nice way way of describing a tie-dyed Dashboard Confessional).

Ziggy’s high-strung mom, on the other hand, is “a good person” by any liberal definition of the phrase. Rivetingly embodied by Julianne Moore in a sotto voce performance that combines the implosive mania she brought to “Magnolia” with the blinkered sanctimoniousness that Betsy DeVos brought to the White House, Evelyn Katz presents herself as the kind of upper-middle-class white lady who’s part of the solution. She donates to NPR, she has a blue yard sign on her lawn, and whatever skeletons she might have in her closet are probably hidden behind a pile of pussy hats and “Nasty Woman” t-shirts (broad as that characterization might sound, Eisenberg’s lean and protean script reliably opts for a scalpel instead of a shotgun).

Evelyn is perhaps best defined by her job running a shelter for victims of domestic violence, but few people who do such life-saving work are able to radiate such an intensely toxic sense of unfulfillment at the same time; one hilariously bad attempt at office smalltalk ends with a secretary convinced that she just got fired. Evelyn’s heart may be in the right place, but there’s a gaping hole in it that can only be filled at home.

And home might be the biggest wound of all. It’s been a veritable war zone — a Thunderdome furnished by West Elm — since Ziggy hit puberty and started writing his own tunes with the guitar his mom intended for protest songs. Whatever harmony once existed in the Katz house has been replaced by intergenerational dissonance, as Ziggy and Evelyn would rather crank up the volume of their favorite music (emo and classical, respectively) than listen to what the other enjoys. Meanwhile, the man of the house (Jay O. Sanders) just minds his own business and prays for a quiet that won’t be coming anytime soon, especially once Evelyn starts fixating on a bright teenage boy who moves into the shelter with his mom. Kyle (Billy Bryk) can’t understand why this strange woman is so invested in treating him like her own son, but Evelyn is dying for someone to accept the love she has to give, and she won’t take no for an answer.

“When You Finish Saving the World” never pretends that’s going to end well, as Evelyn’s overbearing interest in Kyle is even more obviously doomed than Ziggy’s obsession with Lila. But as funny as it can be to watch these characters step on rakes in slow-motion, and as brutal as it always is to hear them stab at their own kin across the dinner table (“You were gonna be one of the good ones” is the sort of thing a mom can’t un-say to her son), even this film’s most wince-inducing moments are ultimately in service to reframing the way that Ziggy and Evelyn think of each other. While the staccato punctuation and “everything is embarrassing” teen energy of Eisenberg’s debut might anticipate a version of “Lady Bird” as told from Kyle Scheible’s POV, the movie we actually get is less about growing up than it is about holding on — it’s the story of Ziggy and Evelyn learning to make space for themselves in their relationships with other people, and to make space for other people in their relationships with themselves.

That can be a gruesome process, and a familiar one even beyond the degree to which it might resonate with your own experience. Eisenberg wears his influences on his sleeve, and Greta Gerwig is hardly the only name that comes to mind during a film that braids the biodigital sweetness of Miranda July around the poison wit of Noah Baumbach (who knew what he was doing when he cast Eisenberg as his teenage avatar in “The Squid and the Whale”).

But Eisenberg has always displayed a knack for putting his own stamp on other people’s stories, whether humanizing a zombie iconoclast like Mark Zuckerberg or exhuming Greg Mottola’s acrylic memories of working at a rundown amusement park, and there isn’t a single line in “When You Finish Saving the World” that you can’t hear coming out of his mouth — his presence behind the camera is so palpable that it would have been redundant for Eisenberg to cast himself. If it’s tempting to imagine the director playing Ziggy in a ghoulish “Dear Evan Hansen” sort of way, that’s only because Wolfhard’s terrifically self-possessed performance sometimes permits his character to be more of an airhead than the movie requires, and Eisenberg wouldn’t know how to fall into that trap if he tried. As it stands, Ziggy doesn’t come off as hopeless or totally untalented (“I’m more of a vacation” is how he justifies his value at an age when all of his peers suddenly seem more serious), but his occasional cartoonishness makes for the only false notes of a movie where every other moment rings true.

There may not have been an elegant way around that. “When You Finish Saving the World” needs both of its main characters to be on a level playing field — it’s crucial to understand why Ziggy and Evelyn are frustrated with themselves, but perhaps even more so to appreciate why they’ve become so frustrated with each other. Abrupt to a fault but still unexpectedly moving, their perpendicular journeys back to a place of mutual appreciation ring true enough in a time when narcissism can bring joy to people around the planet, and altruism isn’t enough to guarantee a connection with your own kids. As Eisenberg once learned the hard way, and conveys here in extremely promising fashion: It’s a lot easier to save the world when you recognize how it might be able to save you in return.

Grade: B+

“When You Finish Saving the World” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it in the United States later this year.

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