When the title character arrives at the bowling alley, he's the one who makes it run. He turns on the lights, powers up the lanes, sprays the shoes, and keys the register, but sadly, nobody notices these things. Winky's World is a dying gem, a small business, with too few customers in a big city like Chicago, owned by Carl (Jim O'Heir), who's ready to divorce from his wife/co-manager Shelia (Candi Milo), and the business altogether. This prompts Jeff to throw a hail Mary with a “fun-filled Friday” consisting of live-music, free pizza, and 2-for-1 lanes. It's the least he can do, in a place he can't see letting go.
On the surface, When Jeff Tried to Save the World could fall back on standard cliches of a story like this, but Goldberg and co-writer Rachel Borgo are too smart for that. Attempting to save the bowling alley slowly gets off the ground, interjected with Jeff's tripped out daydreaming sequences. In fact, I kept waiting for the rescue to come out of left field, but with each gain Jeff makes, he's given another problem setting him back. Our hero is also surrounded by a collection of characters that liven up the action; Brendan Meyer is the lazy, but trying assistant Stanford, or Steve Berg's maintenance man Frank, is more interested in being Jeff's friend than fixing a light. Off to the side is Jeff's sister Lindy (Anna Konkle), oblivious to notice that now is not the time to crash at her brothers place, but her friend Samantha (Maya Erskine) is a welcome face to brighten Jeff's days. Everyone not making it any easy to save the world.
What should certainly entice audiences to see When Jeff Tried to Save the World is the lead performance from Jon Heder. The Napoleon Dynamite star has always been an interesting actor to me. He became a darling to independent film, disco dancing, and telling us to “vote for Pedro”, but what seemed like a promising comedic career sputtered. He wasted his talents on side roles in bad movies such as, The Benchwarmers and School for Scoundrels. I still say he was brilliant in Blades of Glory, but here he's proving he's more than just a two-bit character actor. He can be gentle, the everyday leading man, as his performance as Jeff is both honest and delightful. I feel Kendall Goldberg has tapped into something again.
So does Jeff save the world? That interpretation can be decided by the viewer. The title might suggest that he's stopping the planet from the apocalypse or putting an end to global warming. For now, he's just trying to save a bowling alley and maybe he will fully realize his true potential when it's all said and done. When Jeff Tried to Save the World is a delightful independent film, the revival of a comedy star, and the introduction of a promising new director. That's enough saving for one film.
Written by: Leo Brady
MOVIE: WHEN JEFF TRIED TO SAVE THE WORLD
STARRING: JON HEDER; JIM O'HEIR; BRENDAN MEYER; MAYA ERSKINE
DIRECTED BY: KENDALL GOLDBERG
AMovieGuy.com's RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
There is a bit of all of us in a character like Jeff (Jon Heder). He's just a guy that works in a bowling alley, succeeds at his job because he's too smart to fail, and because of him, the business is running strong. He's a good brother, a friend, a reliable employee, and frankly, he should be doing more with his life, but for now, he'd settle with keeping Winky's World alive for one more day. This is Kendall Goldberg's directorial feature debut, in an independent effort that knocked down all the pins in my heart. This is a film with a unique personality, full of laughs that are honest, and no guarantee that life will have a perfect ending. When Jeff Tried to Save the World is a charming comedy, revives the delightful acting of Jon Heder, and scores a strike.