Actor Jesse Eisenberg seems to be playing right into his on-screen persona as an insufferable narcissist with his feature directing debut When You Finish Saving the World, which is about two or maybe even three of them, while simultaneously doubling as an excruciatingly old-man-ish take on youth wokeness. Based — and I can’t believe I’m typing this — on an audio drama Eisenberg made in 2020, it’s as absolutely ostentatious and irritating as that genesis suggests.
Young Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things… see, I told you this was irritating) is an aspiring streaming star, beaming his terrible, tin-eared songs (which he describes as “classic folk rock with an alternative influence”) out into the Internet ether for consumption by his alleged 20,000 followers. He also conspicuously wears his own merch everywhere. Meanwhile, his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore), also completely self-absorbed, runs a women’s shelter and has developed a fixation on young teen Kyle (Billy Bryk), the charming and guileless son of one of the shelter’s occupants. Her attempts to do some surrogate mothering here are, of course, in contrast to her contentious relationship with Ziggy, to whom she can barely be bothered to relate despite their shared fixation on being congratulated all the time.
Things get even more complicated when Ziggy develops a huge crush on classmate Lila (Alisha Boe), a burgeoning young leftist activist who routinely chastises her peers for being insufficiently radical, which is pretty rich considering her main activity is writing awful protest poems to spread “awareness.” Ziggy dedicates himself to learning her preferred talking points to impress her despite having little to no interest in the issues themselves.
Eisenberg seems to think he’s made a film that balances its characters’ acidity with some understated bittersweetness, but mostly his critique of their narcissism and cluelessness just makes them seem like assholes. We’re meant to clock that Ziggy and Evelyn are failing each other, but at a certain point it’s not worth caring about. Everyone’s preoccupation with their precious ideology never once feels like a genuine desire to be moral, which makes the film’s assessment of it as facile seem like just one more soft target. Wolfhard is properly excruciating in the role, but he also plays Ziggy like a complete dope, so he just seems like a cipher. And it’s hard to decide which is worse: casting Moore as this white liberal shrew or that she agreed to do it.
It’s also visually tepid, full of bummer autumnal browns and grays, alternating between boring handheld and endless, inexplicable slow zooms, which give it that A24 sheen and not much else. It’s as grating as movies get; perhaps the only successful irony in the entire endeavor is that Eisenberg, of all people, played completely to type in asserting these particular pretentions.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.