MOVIE REVIEW: When Jeff Tried to Save the World




One could lose count how many times in the last 25 years a certain belligerent “manchild” stereotype has been lionized on the silver screen. You know the type. It’s the over-40 selfish male without a career path who still objectifies women and slacks off doing childish things. Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell have made a living within that wheelhouse. We have long reached a point where this type of character is overplayed and increasingly unfunny. If there ever was a standing challenge posted for writers and filmmakers to improve on this stereotype. 23-year-old Kendall Goldberg just answered it with When Jeff Tried to Save the World.

Breaking through that tired trope to follow a lead character with honesty, realism, and the normally absent trait of dignity is exactly what makes the new independent flick an absolutely welcome little smoothie of a film. Filmed in south suburbs of Chicago and featuring a standout performance from Jon Heder, When Jeff Tried to Save the World is the kind of flick that leaves a lingering grin that wafts over you in a lightly adorable way as if someone transformed the stench of bowling shoes into a scent to savor. Brought to us by Gunpowder & Sky, the same indie shingle that brought us the effervescent Hearts Beat Loud earlier this year, Kendall Goldberg’s film plays is available on VOD after debuting locally for a pair of nights at the Music Box Theatre.

The sensory suggestion of bowling shoes comes from this movie’s endearing setting. Heder plays Jeff, the manager of Winky’s World, a declining suburban Illinois bowling alley. Working under his soon-to-be-divorcing owners Sheila (voice actress Candi Milo) and Carl (The Office’s Jim O’Heir) and alongside a colorful cluster of unhelpful underling employees like pothead Millennial Stanford (Fear the Walking Dead’s Brendan Meyer) and loquacious handyman Frank (Steve Berg of TV’s The Good Place), Jeff is a failed computer science major who did design a semi-successful retro-style video game console that graces the alley’s arcade. He lives with his disapproving and patronizing younger sister Lindy (Anna Konkle of TV’s Rosewood) and his parents do not know his lesser employment status.

Filmed over three weeks at the existing Lan-Oak Lanes in Lansing, Illinois, Winky’s World is Jeff’s orderly place of solace and the mission field for his sense of routine. His meticulousness is a compulsion, but one he metes out with nearly automatic courtesy and kindness. He is a manchild who takes his duties seriously with initiative and thinks of more than himself, as opposed to the lazy norm.

LESSON #1: A DIFFERENT KIND OF MANCHILD — Simply put, Jeff is overqualified for this kind of work. Unlike the manchild tendencies, he is an exceedingly nice individual. He takes great pride in his work and seems like the one guy, above even the owners, who cares to keep this old haunt and its legacy going. For what feels like the first time in a long time in a good movie, we have a guy at a crossroads who may long to stay young, but it does it detract from responsibilities.

LESSON #2: DEALING WITH CHANGE AT A CERTAIN AGE — Circling back to that aforementioned crossroads, Jeff’s stringent stability is rattled by two different servings of change. The first is Lindy’s visiting best friend Samantha, an accepting and alluring presence played TV actress Maya Erskine that puts him on the couch thinking about the possibilities requiring courage to speak to her. The second piece is the doozy. Carl is selling off Winky’s World in his upcoming divorce likely for a teardown. The potential razing of his comfort zone sets into motion the titular conundrum.

Much of the appeal to celebrate about the miniature mid-life crisis laid out by Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 within When Jeff Tried to Save the World comes from Jon Heder. The 41-year-old actor may never shake his permanent attachment to playing a certain awkward Idahoan high schooler running for office, but he deserves a heap of praise for this completely opposite performance. Heder steadily plays his age, which is the simplest of many compliments. To watch him dial down flamboyant excesses to play a middle-aged man bound by his own quirks with frankness instead couldn’t be more surprising and satisfying.

Another energy source to this film’s appeal is its rich creativity. The imaginative dream sequences, backed by Hannah Parrott’s immersive musical score, offer delightful production value and engagement equal to films triple this one’s budget. Not only has writer-director Kendall Goldberg fleshed out this excellent main character, she guides it through this plot with a matching sense imagination and earnestness. The nuances win in a story where heart and pragmatic approachability outshine any need for shock value and raunch. The smart and spot-on tonal mix of such simplicities deserve to be appreciated.

LESSON #3: THE WATERING HOLES THAT ARE BOWLING ALLEYS — Even with the commonplace computerized scoring nowadays, bowling counts as analog entertainment for all ages. No apps or data are needed. It is a sport of loose athletic requirement and zero socioeconomic status. Bowling is a rare sport where you can completely suck yet still have a great time. Why? It’s because of the people and the casual level of sharing quality time on a lane or two with family and friends. Beyond the character piece, When Jeff Tried to Save the World is a love letter to bowling alleys. May there always be room for recreational games instead of digital ones, and may these gathering places remain community staples in any neck of any woods.