There’s not a whole lot of forward momentum in “Why Stop Now?” which is a surprise considering the immediacy-baiting title. Though the film takes place within the span of one day, the narrative feels truncated, allowing for connections to form, and then sever, over the course of twenty-four hours. It’s well-acted, certainly, though these performances belong in a film with sharper pacing, one that breathes easily. But, this directorial debut from Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner breathes like a frequent smoker: in fits and starts, peppered with coughs and dry heaves.
Jesse Eisenberg, probably playing slightly younger than he can manage, is Eli Smith, a high school piano prodigy with one shot to get into a prestigious university. With one audition left to master, he only needs to complete a few menial tasks: take his little sister to school, pick her up later, and drop Mom (Melissa Leo) off at rehab. Smith seems like the over-prepared type, but he’s also a harried, slightly damaged motor-mouth, so it’s not a surprise to see that he wouldn’t realize his mother Penny would not qualify for rehab as long as her system was recently free of controlled substances.
Once inside, Penny is told by the doctors that she cannot be admitted without insurance, unless there was proof she had recently been using. The questionably-principled doctor she sees invites her to leave, score some drugs, and to come back that day, leading her to return to her already-frazzled, hungover son, who hasn’t exactly been handling the pressure of his academic life revolving around one last recital.
Reluctantly, he attempts to eliminate Penny from the equation by taking her to her dealer. Unfortunately, the drugs will be taking a circuitous route into Penny’s system. To Eli’s chagrin, she owes far too much to the curiously-named Sprinkles (Tracy Morgan) to meet him in person. Adding complications to this somewhat-contrived scenario, Sprinkles, a testy, violent sort with a suspicious limp that appears to have it’s own story, is out of supplies. Even still, Sprinkles’ supplier only speaks Spanish. Fortunately, Eli has mastered high school Spanish, beginning a madcap romp of sorts that continues to put our main characters in a series of convoluted predicaments.
“Why Stop Now?” does happen to feature three sharp actors at the top of their craft. Eisenberg may be a bit too old for Eli, but he infuses the character with a restlessness that’s both intellectual and borderline dangerous. He’s jittery and fast-talking, much like the average Eisenberg protagonist, but it’s a defensive mechanism here, as if he’s talking his way up a mountain, with the risk that letting him talk his way up the peak would be like lava overflowing from a busy volcano. It’s a forceful, commanding turn, one that keeps revealing surprising depths, even if the places his uptight character will go seem awfully familiar.
Leo, too, takes a stock character and infuses it with warmth and reality. The many faces of Penny, on paper, would lead a lesser actress to play the character as unpredictable and wily. With her lived-in turn, however, Leo showcases a kind heart, a character with warmth, humor and unexpected sexuality who deceives the audience into rooting for her, forgetting the personality crutch that involves her turning away from her family to score a quick hit. Few actresses can play both maternal warmth and life-of-the-party enthusiasm, but it seems to come unusually natural to Leo.
Through no fault of his own, Morgan’s Sprinkles is less successful. The comedian has shown a surprising desire to attempt dramatic roles as of late, bringing an uncommon energy to a haunted survivor in “Son Of No One,” which was seen by no one. As Sprinkles, he adds a comedic edge to a character that seems outwardly threatening at first, giving his dialogue a Scorsese-ian edge. His long-faced stare proves serious enough to startle, though the child-like grin often emerges as well, creating a character that amuses himself as he drives the plot of the film, even if he’s liable to snap at any point. Unfortunately, it’s his very presence that throws the film’s timeline out of whack (it’s, by necessity, a ticking clock narrative), and “Why Stop Now?” contorts in untenable directions in order to accommodate third act epiphanies that don’t connect with the vivid characterizations of its cast. Moreover, Sprinkles slowly goes from character to narrative tool in an attempt to move the story forward, particularly at the halfway point when the ticking clock gets significantly reworked.
Even with the Olympic-level contortions to take this from a forty-five minute short to a full-length film, the seams show, significantly lowering the stakes by the time we’ve reached our third act. A romantic subplot for Eli feels wedged inorganically into the storyline as if there wasn’t enough weight on him already. That strand comes complete with a full-on Civil War re-enactment, a parade of elaborately dressed performers literally barreling full-force into the storyline. A distraction, sure, but emblematic of a runaway narrative that curtails the full force of three sharp performances, leaving “Why Stop Now?” a compelling curiosity, just short of a fulfilling experience. [B-]