As the comical misadventures of a group of characters in “Why Stop Now” grow in size and number, you never for a moment forget that you’re rattling around inside a movie designed for zaniness. But you so enjoy the sensation, why care?
The thing is, normally a movie dealing with addiction, criminals and dysfunctional families are deadly serious affairs. Writer-directors Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner flip that heavy drama coin so this time it comes up tails — meaning comedy.
The film, inspired by a 2008 short made by the two men, is also blessed with three all-stars in Jesse Eisenberg, Melissa Leo and Tracy Morgan. Each is adept at twisting a line or bit of spectacular illogic so gasps turn to laughs. For nearly all the key characters in this strangely titled comedy are plagued by inner devils that are anything but funny.
Eli Smith (Eisenberg) is a piano prodigy who on the day of a hugely important audition for a prestigious music academy must make sure his junkie mom Penny (Leo) finally checks into rehab.
But the near Orwellian logic of the local clinic insists that her urine sample must be “dirty.” Since she’s been clean for a while, it isn’t. Also she doesn’t have insurance.
So Eli needs to score some coke to get his mom high enough to qualify her for rehab. Which means coming into contact with her local hook-up Sprinkles (Morgan). He in turn kidnaps Eli since he needs Eli’s translation abilities to communicate with his Spanish-speaking supplier.
These kind of one-damn-thing-after-another comedies seldom work. You can almost always spot the contrivances meant to keep the ball rolling. Not here.
The plot-thickeners nearly always spring from the characters’ idiosyncrasies, including the assorted foibles of the supporting personalities such as a Eli’s kid sister (Emma Rayne Lyle) so dependent on a sock puppet, Penny’s judgmental sister (Stephanie March), the easily provoked Latino drug supplier (Paul Calderon) and Sprinkles’ easy-going associate (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).
There is one clear contrivance, if you will, and that would be the fact that Revolutionary War re-enactors occupy the small East Coast suburban community where the story takes place. But how the re-enactors get tangled up in the story line, which involves a girl (Sarah Ramo) Eli has a crush on, is so damn funny few would object.
The story allows each character to confront his or her demons — for Penny to stop denying her addiction, for Sprinkles to locate where his promising life went wrong and for Eli to realize that like his mom and earlier his dad he too has an addiction problem, which is alcohol.
So again, this is serious stuff but treated comically by Dorling and Nyswaner, not to minimize the problems but to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and an upbeat assessment on his or her chances to overcome and survive these demons.
Performances sparkle throughout the film. The trick to a movie such as this is for actors to take the increasingly chaotic situations with all due seriousness and never act the comedy; never try to be funny.
The humor lies in straight-faced earnestness with which the characters collide with their own flaws and foibles and come to realize that there’s no time like now to begin to deal with those issues. Indeed the film perhaps should be entitled “Why Not Stop Now?”
Opens: August 17, 2012 (IFC Films)
Production companies: A BCDF Pictures, Strategic Notions Ventures presentation in association with Armian Pictures, Blue Dog Films.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Melissa Leo, Tracy Morgan, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Sarah Ramos, Emma Rayne Lyle, Stephanie March
Directors/screenwriters: Phil Dorling, Ron Nyswaner
Story by: Ron Nyswaner
Producers: Neda Armian, Brice Dal Farra, Claude Dal Farra, Lauren Munsch, Ron Nyswaner, Paul Prokop.
Executive producers: Wendy Cox, Peter Sterling
Director of photography: Ben Kutchins
Production designer: Jane Musky
Music: Spencer David Hutchings
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Editors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
No rating, 87 minutes