Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut “When You Finish Saving the World” opened the Sundance film festival this year with a dramedy style that’s familiar to the Park City event. We may not be in Utah, but the quirky characters come to us on our couches now. Sadly, the quirks this time around feel forced and shallow, the product of a film that’s not truly interested in delving into the psyches of its complex characters as much as it is in mocking them and using them as plot devices. Actors Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore do some heavy lifting to try and find something human in “When You Finish Saving the World,” but Eisenberg never figured these two out, turning them into a collection of tics and anxieties more than three-dimensional characters. It’s a hollow film about people fundamentally misunderstanding the dynamics of the relationships they so desperately want to work. And there’s something decidedly out of touch in this privileged story of a mother and teenager filtered through the voice of someone who is neither a mother nor a teenager.
The “Stranger Things” star plays the awkward Ziggy Katz, a heartfelt young man who has found what he thinks is his purpose by playing cheesy original songs to online fans around the world. He lives for their upvotes, which turn into money for him, and even tells his parents during a fight that he’s going to be so much richer than them. He’s a conundrum in that his music sounds sincere and he seems to love the connections he makes, but he does so in terms of quantity, not quality. It’s the amount of followers and the potential he can make, but not in a traditional capitalist sense—he sees this as how success and change are defined now. (Sadly, he might be right.) And that worldview is rocked when he meets Lila (Alisha Boe), a charismatic fellow student who has a much deeper political point of view.
At the same time, the distance between Ziggy and his mother Evelyn (Julianne Moore) is growing. She works at a domestic abuse shelter, which I have to say feels very thinly represented here and presenting her job in a more genuine way might have helped add nuance to Evelyn. It’s just a setting at which she’s destined to meet Kyle (Billy Bryk), the hard-working, morally conscious son of a new resident. Evelyn sees in Kyle what she wishes she saw in Ziggy. They’re really both replacing each other in their lives as Lila has the political acumen of Evelyn and Kyle ignites mom’s maternal instincts in a way that Ziggy just doesn’t now.
These parallel tracks make for some interesting ideas about how we try to shape people to meet our needs, but those themes never cohere into an entertaining or believable feature film. Moore adds some nice grace notes to Evelyn and I’m curious to see Wolfhard grow from his Netflix origins, but I simply didn’t buy these people as ones who exist in the real world. They’re not quite caricatures but they’re closer than they should be. At one point, I wrote down “Is this a Napoleon Dynamite character?” about Ziggy, and I’m still not sure. It feels like Eisenberg is too often looking down on these lost souls, and that he doesn’t have the teeth to make this into a satire of blind privilege. It gets lost somewhere in the tonal uncanny valley, as uncertain of what it’s trying to say as Ziggy is stumbling his way through a new song.
Much more confident and nuanced is Oliver Hermanus’ “Living,” a moving elegy on the value of life based on one of the best films ever made, Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.” That’s one of my all-time favorite movies, but I still found grace and value in this update because of the attention to detail and emotional current of the people who made it. Bluntly, it helps a great deal to validate your remake if you have a Nobel Prize-winning author doing the adaptation, and Kazuo Ishiguro (“The Remains of the Day,” “Never Let Me Go”) transports the story of Kurosawa’s masterpiece to post-WWII Japan in a way that feels genuine. Ishiguro’s script is a beauty, but it’s the manner in which Bill Nighy conveys its subtle beats that elevates “Living.” I doubt I’ll see a better performance at Sundance, and it’s likely to be one that lingers with me through 2022. It’s career-best work from a phenomenal actor.
Nighy plays a buttoned-up bureaucrat named Williams in 1953 London. We meet him on the same day that Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp) starts working in his office filled with stacks of paper and a policy of red tape. Williams is soft-spoken and particular, a creature of such habit that he has become defined by his routine instead of his emotions. This changes when he receives a terminal diagnosis, spinning off his axis. He first endeavors to live life in the short time he can, meeting a barfly named Sutherland (Tom Burke), with whom he has a boozy night that ends in an emotional song. He’s then drawn to the only woman in his office, Ms. Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), thinking she can show him the value of life before he’s unable to spend it. He learns what really matters is the influence we have on others and what we leave behind.
Of course, this is familiar to fans of “Ikiru,” but the restrictions of Japanese culture unpacked in that film translate well to repressed old England in the early 1950s, and Nighy imbues his character with such grace that we don’t question the fact that we’ve seen this story before. He doesn’t lean into the extremes of the reserved “gentleman” that Williams admits he simply wanted to be or the potential drama of the story of a man facing mortality. His performance is filled with minor beats, small choices wherein we can see emotion crossing his face. Maybe it’s a memory, a regret, a wish—we don’t know, but we don’t have to know. There’s so much going on under the surface of this performance that it puts so many of the showy cancer drama turns to shame. This is how a man like Williams ends his life, in a way that you won’t forget.
More forgettable despite its best intentions is the directorial debut from Phyllis Nagy, the Oscar-nominated writer of “Carol.” Her latest historical drama has undeniable timing—there’s a reason that Sundance has programmed several films about abortion in 2022, including the documentary “The Janes” and the international drama “Happening,” both of which will be reviewed here later. But intentions only go so far. While I wish the timeliness of “Call Jane” allowed it to work as a drama, this is a superficial treatment of a true story that cuts much deeper than Nagy or this production are willing to recognize. A talented ensemble too often feels adrift by shapeless direction and a script that sacrifices detail to make broad statements that may be valuable culturally and politically but not cinematically.
Elizabeth Banks plays Joy, a 1960s Chicago housewife who has a pregnancy that she discovers could kill her. It’s leading to congestive heart failure, but the doctors at the hospital are willing to take the risk that she takes the pregnancy to term. One of the film’s best scenes features Joy in a meeting with men who will decide if she is allowed a “therapeutic termination,” and they don’t even acknowledge her presence as they discuss her potential death.
Joy figures out how to get an illegal abortion by answering an ad and finds herself becoming a player in the Jane Collective, an organization that women turned to when they needed help terminating a pregnancy. Her husband Will (a miscast Chris Messina) and daughter have no idea how deep she’s getting into this world, eventually performing the abortions herself. Sigourney Weaver shines as Virginia, the leader of the collective. It’s nice to see Weaver given a juicy dramatic role again. One just wishes it was in a better movie.
Everyone here means well, but it’s a great study in one of Roger Ebert’s best quotes: “It’s not what a movie is about it, it’s how it is about it.” I wish people in power would consider the struggles that people have faced to have control over their own bodies more in 2022 than I believe they do. But that doesn’t make “Call Jane” effective as a drama. It’s too shallow and more interested in what it’s about than how it is about it.