Review: ‘When You Finish Saving the World’ doesn’t know what to do with itself

Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut flounders — much like its two main characters.


Jesse Eisenberg’s fame fails to elevate “When You Finish Saving the World,” his directorial debut, to critical acclaim. (Courtesy of A24)

Colleen Secaur, Contributing Writer

A “Jesse Eisenberg character” is an archetype easily constructed in the moviegoing public’s mind. He’s awkward, pretentious and neurotic — and maybe a bit moneyed and spoiled.

Eisenberg, an acclaimed actor most widely known for his role as Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” has consistently played this character, or a series of similar iterations — in his breakout role as a Brooklyn teenager in “The Squid and the Whale,” as a theme park employee in “Adventureland,” and most recently, as a divorced dad in “Fleishman is in Trouble.” 

His directorial debut, “When You Finish Saving the World,” is inseparable from this archetype, but unfortunately, this reads as a detriment. The film centers around Evelyn (Julianne Moore), a mother who has devoted her life and family to social work, and her son Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard), who is so intoxicated by his virtual fame as a songwriter that he doesn’t seem to comprehend a relationship that isn’t based in adulation. The characters are clearly intended to be unlikeable and are plainly deluded — Evelyn by her liberal pretensions, and Ziggy by his misguided attempts to win over a girl, Lila (Alisha Boe).

Evelyn’s arc largely revolves around Kyle (Billy Bryk), a boy at the shelter she works at, who she immediately latches on to, becoming a mother figure in his life. However, her derision for his job at an auto body shop and her efforts to encourage him to apply to Oberlin College instead seem more like a half-baked Saturday Night Live skit. The storyline plays out as skewering to liberal academia rather than the razor-sharp criticism that Eisenberg likely intended. 

On the other hand, her biological son, Ziggy, is awestruck by Lila and attempts to, however clumsily, identify with her brand of social activism — his efforts ringing more and more hollow each time. Both mother and son exhibit a discomfiting habit of believing entirely in their self-constructed worlds of right and wrong. This makes their scenes together borderline unbearable. It doesn’t help that each character behaves in a way that would be unrealistic and unsuccessful in the real world.

It does somewhat help that the film is buoyed by Moore, Wolfhard and Boe’s performances, who all strive toward something portraying sharply rendered characters — and even come close to achieving it in a handful of scenes. These include a cringe-inducing slam poetry competition and a dinner table conversation during which Ziggy’s father (Jay O. Sanders) warns him against recording blues music, proclaiming, “When white people perform blues music, it’s cultural appropriation.” This moment in particular crystallizes what Eisenberg spends an entire movie trying to shout at us: The fundamental disconnect between a self-involved teenager and his white, liberal, academic-minded parents, who seem to be able to extend empathy toward anyone but him. 

This message at the core of the film is not enough to build an 88-minute runtime. Ziggy and Evelyn’s moments of increasing narcissism become too much to bear on their own. There are brief, hopeful flashes of something more — underlying themes about what ties a family together, or what empathy means in practice rather than in theory — but if you blink, you’ll miss it. It’s a vicious cycle of idiocy. Lila abandons Ziggy, Kyle abandons Evelyn and we’re left right where we started. By the end, mother and son are left together, with no progress on reaching a mutual understanding. Similarly, the audience walks out of “When You Finish Saving the World” wondering what lesson Eisenberg wanted his viewers to take from his film in the first place.

Contact Colleen Secaur at [email protected].