Seventeen years after playing the confused teenager with a deluded father in a fragile family to Noah Baumbach in “The Squid and the Whale,” Jesse Eisenberg has created his own comedic take on this neurotic ecosystem with his writer-director debut. “When you’re done saving the world.”
Adapting a scenario from a podcast drama of the same name he wrote for Audible, which aired during the pandemic, Eisenberg takes us into the sardonic and scathing relationship between an activist mother (Julianne Moore) and her personally ambitious son (Finn Wolfhard), neither of whom can hide their mutual disappointment when they cross paths under the same roof. (Rounding out this tense household is Jay O. Sanders as the get-along dad who, at one point, calls his housemates in a moment of understandable frustration “a couple of narcissists.”)
Wolfhard’s lanky high school student Ziggy is focused on his internet fame as a singer-songwriter of teen-age plaintive folk-rock tunes that he broadcasts live from his bedroom to his fans. The irony, of course, befitting his social media-fueled existence is that, for someone with 20,000 followers from around the world, information he quickly shares with anyone he knows, local popularity remains non-existent. It’s probably because Ziggy’s selfish need on a day-to-day basis is just as noticeable as the guitar case he always carries with him.
Meanwhile, her mother, Evelyn (Moore), patiently spends her days running a domestic violence shelter she founded, but has a brittle and sad office demeanor that leads a staff member to respond to her small talk A forced smile with a nervous, “Are you firing me?” Connected but lonely, Evelyn’s own dilemma, not realizing that her son is dealing with this as well, is that for all that she is rewarding in what she does for the women in his care, Ziggy’s life is the one he can’t stop feeling.project failed.How did the son he took to marches and teach him protest songs become a superficial busker on a website?
Eisenberg’s comedic sensibility, not far removed from Baumbach’s, who owes something to Woody Allen, is to give Ziggy and Evelyn parallel obsessions of funny embarrassment that reflect how blind they are to mutual need. Ziggy burns to impress a poetry-writing, incandescently intelligent, social-justice warrior classmate (Alisha Boe)—an Oedipus-adjacent crush project that requires an interest in politics she’d rather head off to exploit than think. in her like a hole in her learning. . And when Evelyn meets Kyle (Billy Bryk), the thoughtful working-class teenage son of one of the shelter’s newest lodgers, a surrogate motherhood opportunity arises that she, in her overreach, can’t avoid.
Yet as these settings unfold, in the cool autumnal grain of Benjamin Loeb’s 16mm cinematography and over an Emile Mosseri score that fills in the non-diegetic gaps between Ziggy’s songs and Evelyn’s soothing classical music with sibilant electronic sound motifs, the comic of a wince awkwardly competes. with the emotional frame. It’s a problem that Eisenberg will inevitably improve the more he writes and directs movies with these sorts of thematically complicated characters. But for now it feels like a story caught between the punishing bite of social satire and sensitive indie.
The actors help, up to a point. Wolfhard, working on a nice reversal of his duties on “Stranger Things,” and the reliably intense Moore are entertainingly tough when it comes to the most disturbing comedy, with Wolfhard timing moments sharply reminiscent of his most memorable portraits. Straits writer and director. mental arrogance. However, neither he nor Moore get much of a chance to sow the underground stuff that is ultimately required to sell Eisenberg’s epiphany gear change at the end. As a micro case study into some acutely flawed 21st century fighters, “When You Finish Saving the World” has its well-done moments, but when you want it to be gloriously messy about families and human interactions, it remains resolutely in lab mode.