Finn Wolfhard in Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving the World and Daniel Zolghadri in Owen Kline’s Funny Pages,
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by A24
Sports has a concept called the coaching tree. A successful coach’s assistants become coaches themselves, and if they work out, their assistants become coaches, and so on. You can do the same thing with directors. The Steven Spielberg coaching tree produced filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Chris Columbus, while Sam Raimi gave us the Coen brothers, who in turn gave us Barry Sonnenfeld. But did you know that there is also a Noah Baumbach coaching tree? The prickly Baumbach isn’t a guy you’d immediately think of as having acolytes, but just look at this year’s Cannes lineup: Seventeen years after Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whaleboth of the children from that film have brought their directorial debuts to the Croisette, and each bears the unmistakable imprint of their cinematic forefather. If Bill Walsh’s disciples carried the legacy of the short-passing offense into the 21st century, then Baumbach’s will ensure millennials and Zoomers shall never be deprived of their own dyspeptic dramedies about artists and intellectuals. (Do not speak of the boomers’ master of this form, whose films used to premiere at Cannes all the time too.)
Jesse Eisenberg played the Baumbach stand-in in Squid and the Whaleand it’s in his film that the older director’s DNA comes through strongest. When You Finish Saving the World debuted at this year’s virtual Sundance, and at Cannes it was the opening-night selection for the Critics Week sidebar. Based on Eisenberg’s audiobook of the same name, the film tracks the generation gap between a middle-aged mom, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), and her teenage son, Ziggy (Finn Wolfhard). She’s the brittle head of a domestic-violence shelter, he’s a naïf who sings little songs into a webcam and obsesses over his follower count. Both of them are painfully aware he lacks depth, and both play-act new relationships to fill that hole: Evelyn with the son of a new shelter resident (Billy Bryck) who’s exactly the kind of responsible, empathetic man she wishes she had raised, and Ziggy with a woke classmate (Alisha Boe) who writes poetry about imperialism in the South Pacific. Both relationships are doomed because that’s what happens when you approach someone thinking only of how their shine can reflect on you. The test is seeing if, as a filmmaker, Eisenberg can script a slow-motion interpersonal car crash as well as Justin Lin can a real one.
The verdict seems to be “good first effort, needs improvement.” Simmering resentments, cringey political grandstanding, characters whose self-consciousness never translates into self-awareness — this is the Noah Baumbach Zone, and it’s a world Eisenberg is well at home in. At Sundance, EW‘s Leah Greenblatt dubbed Saving the World a “Small Epiphanies Movie,” in which “fretful protagonists — melancholy, neurotic, generally upper-middle-class — must learn to grow and change, but not, you know, too much.” However, these movies require a precise balance of salty and sweet, and Eisenbeg’s palette fails him at times. I haven’t heard much buzz about it at Cannes (in fairness, played it before I got here), and the critics who did review the film called it “cartoony” and “lightweight.” Strangely enough, both Saving the World and Squid and the Whale feature subplots about high-schoolers gaining cred from songs written by other people, and I agree that’s what Eisenberg’s debut feels like: someone doing their best Noah Baumbach cover.
Audiences here have been much more enthusiastic about the other movie, Owen Kline’s Funny Pages, which premiered Tuesday in Directors Fortnight and received plenty of hoots, hollers, and ovations at my screening. As a tween, Kline played the younger brother in Squid and the Whale, you may remember the scene in which he masturbated in a library, then smeared semen on the shelves. Since then, he has worked on the crew of the Safdies’ early films, and they paid him back by producing this one. (It must also be noted that Kline is the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. A24, which is distributing both these films, has never been afraid to take a chance on someone whose parents’ names are linked in blue on Wikipedia.) It’s messier and more scabrous than its counterpart: The film opens with a middle-aged art teacher stripping nude to teach his protégé about figure drawing — a scene that brought down the house when I saw it — and things only get more raucous from there.
Funny Pages is set in the alternative-comics scene, a world where subversion is the watchword and R. Crumb’s name is whispered in the same reverential tones in which music nerds speak of Dylan. In genteel Princeton, budding cartoonist Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) horrifies his parents by dropping out of high school to pursue a career in underground art, a path that brings little recognition and less money. The film’s plot is as bare as an ink-line drawing, but Kline has a lot of fun taking us on a safari of scuzziness, from the bureaucratic wasteland of Robert’s day job at a public defender’s office to the shittiest apartment in New Jersey, which only gets stranger and more terrible with each passing room.
The film crackles with a distinct oddball energy, and you can see the influences of the Safdies in its cavalcade of weirdo character actors, including Marcia DeBonis as Robert’s boss and Matthew Maher as a comics veteran who alternates between priggishness and rage. But Kline has Baumbach’s nose for bourgeois cultural tourism and his ear for the artist’s particular mix of petulance and self-regard. When Robert begins attacking his buddy Miles’s artistic bona fides, he first accuses Miles of disappointing his mentor. After Miles notes the man himself supported him, Robert flips in an instant: “I don’t think he was ever fully honest with us.”
Funny Pages still feels like a debut: It’s shaggier than the films playing in competition (Zolghadri visibly ages and de-ages in the middle of certain scenes) and its climactic set piece has the shakiness of a young director who hasn’t yet mastered shooting action. Still, it’s easy to understand why this is the one earning all the laurels. Eisenberg’s film feels like one he made because he wanted to make a movie; Kline’s like he wanted to make this movie. As Robert’s scheme to get a leg up with a legendary publisher goes fubar, Maher’s character screams at him, “You don’t just get to be an artist!” As these two movies prove, maybe you do. Of course, it helps to have co-starred in an Oscar-nominated movie first.