When Jeff Tried to Save the World (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Meet Jeff the Manager

“When Jeff Tried to Save the World” is about an ordinary guy who tries to save his workplace, and it did its job a little better than expected. Leisurely observing his diligent efforts, the movie often gives us small humorous moments to be enjoyed, and we are also often touched as getting to know more of its modest hero.

Jon Heder, who looks quite different from his clownish appearance in “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004), plays Jeff, the manager of a shabby bowling alley named Winky’s World. While he once studied computer engineering, Jeff has been pretty content with his current position, and we see how he goes through his daily work routines along with his fellow employees. He always comes first in the morning, and then he fastidiously prepares for the opening hour, and then we soon watch him working along with other employees including Stanford (Brendan Meyer), a laid-back lad who is incidentally the nephew of Carl (Jim O’Heir), the owner of Winky’s World.

When his worktime is about to be over, Jeff receives a bad news from his boss Sheila (Cardi Milo), who is Carl’s ex-wife, and Carl. Because the business has recently been going down and it is quite expensive to repair and remodel Winky’s World, Carl comes to decide to sell his bowling alley to some buyers who are willing to demolish it and then build something else on the spot. As a guy who has been comfortable with his workplace for years, Jeff does not like this change at all, but, as Sheila sardonically points out to him, it seems there is nothing he can do for making Carl change his mind.

Meanwhile, Jeff’s solitary personal life becomes a little complicated when his sister Samantha (Maya Erskine) and her roommate friend Lindy (Anna Konkle) unexpectedly come to stay at his apartment for a few days. Because he has been hiding his current job from his sister and parents, Jeff cannot help but awkward in front of his sister, but then he finds himself attracted to Lindy, and that feeling turns out to be mutual when they happen to work on a kitchen problem together later in the story.

Although he becomes quite anxious about losing his dear workplace, Jeff decides to be a little more active than usual. For persuading Carl and dissuading his potential buyers, Jeff promptly announces a special Friday event in front of the remaining customers in Winky’s world, and it seems his strategy works when Friday comes. He and his colleagues are delighted to handle a lot more customers than usual, and, thanks to Stanford, they even have a band to perform music.

Of course, things do not go as well as Jeff wants, but the movie does not hurry itself at all while slowly establishing its mood and characters more. While we come to empathize more with Jeff’s circumstance, we also come to like several other characters including Carl, who is not a bad man at all and simply wants to walk away from his bowling alley for moving onto another phase of his life. Although the bowling alley in the film looks quite old and dated at first, it feels more cheerful and spirited as filled with more people, and the electronic score by Hannah Parrott adds considerable old-fashioned style to the movie.

Above all, the movie is anchored well by Heder’s understated lead performance, which is one of his best acting turns during recent years. Although I was rather annoyed by “Napoleon Dynamite” unlike many others, Heder’s odd comic performance in that movie gave me a glimpse of his acting talent at least, and he surprises me here in this film as showing how deftly he can dial down his comic persona for playing his introverted character. While never directly striving for laugh or sympathy, he brings considerable life and personality to his character, and we come to root for his character a lot even though we can clearly see from the beginning that his character is bound to face a hard fact he cannot possibly ignore.

Director Kendal Goldberg, who wrote the screenplay with Rachel Borgo, assembles good performers around Heder. While Brendan Meyer and Steve Berg often provide broad moments of humor, Candi Milo has her own moments as a bitter, jaded boss, and Jim O’Heir, who previously played one of many funny supporting characters in TV sitcom series “Parks and Recreation”, did a commendable job of making his character more likable and understandable than expected. In case of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, they are also fine in their respective supporting roles, and Konkle effortlessly click well with Heder during their few intimate scenes in the film.

I must point out that the movie is not entirely without flaws. For example, a subplot involved with a mysterious old man who always comes to the bowling alley everyday is rather contrived and predictable, though this part subsequently leads to a nice feel-good moment around the finale. In addition, despite its short running time (93 minutes), the movie sometimes lags due to its slow narrative pacing, and you may feel impatient from time to time.

Nevertheless, “When Jeff Tried to Save the World” is still worthwhile to watch on the whole, and it is a shame that this little independent movie did not get much exposure when it was released early in this month. Besides Heder’s solid performance, the movie has enough good things for recommendation, so I suggest that you should give it a chance someday.

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