What's an American family these days? Many different things, but while television — a domestic medium to its marrow — has an affectionate finger on the pulse of the changing modern family, movies often seem stuck in a sorry dysfunction held over from the late 1960s, when we awoke to find that jolly Beaver Cleaver had morphed into miserable Benjamin Braddock, and while Mrs. Robinson tippled discreetly in the bedroom, Father, far from knowing best, went clueless or missing.
Booze, drugs, failing single moms, foundering kids — these are the stale currency of Why Stop Now, a heavy-breathing new dramedy about an "ordinary" family (yes, they're called the Smiths) crippled by substance abuse and a co-dependent vibe straight out of Dr. Phil's caseload.
For all their troubles, the Smiths are an arty crew. When she's not high as a kite, mom Penny (Melissa Leo) can be found painting vaguely hippie murals on her bedroom wall. When he's not blind drunk, her son Eli (Jesse Eisenberg) plays air piano on car hoods and other available surfaces. Confronted with an actual instrument, he turns into a tortured genius; a few mellifluous bars reduce Eli's listeners to awed silence while he, unable to commit to his gift, throws up on the carpet, momentarily attracting the attention of a pretty Steadying Influence (Sarah Ramos) in a sensible cardigan. She will be back later, but first much noisy neurosis and the desperate plot-writers' handy little helper, the road trip.
Worn out from running interference for his mother and his little sister, who likes to vent through an angry sock puppet, Eli drags a reluctant Penny to rehab. Turns out she's not high enough to qualify for health care, and when the drug counselor sends her out to get more stoned, Eli is corralled into working for Penny's African-American drug dealer, Sprinkles (Tracy Morgan), who's not very good at his job, lives with his mom and yells like George Jefferson. A self-healing rainbow alterna-family is born.
Worked up from a short film that played at Sundance, Why Stop Now is credited to novice filmmaker Phil Dorling and veteran screenwriter Ron Nyswaner. It's hard to believe that Nyswaner, who wrote a sensitive adaptation of the Somerset Maugham story The Painted Veil, as well as the unfairly maligned AIDS drama Philadelphia, had much to do with the horrible writing that has Eli yelling "Yo!" at Sprinkles — who, when not emitting expletive poetry, addresses his new employee as "Mozart" and "badass piano man." Even as parody, this has been done to death.
It's painful to watch indie stars like Leo and Eisenberg struggling to pump life into gross caricatures of the crazy single mom and her self-immolating son. The movie is littered with other stick figures — a prissy aunt in need of loosening up, a middle-aged Latino dealer who also lives with his mom and fixates on Eli's.
Brandishing poorly disguised hearts of gold, Team Eli leaps in and out of cars, where they bicker endlessly and, for some reason, run into Civil War re-enactments that add to a stream of frantic filler pending the arrival of the statutory moment of truth.
Urged on by Sprinkles (who coulda been a contender himself, only in a field of endeavor that's typically reserved for blacks in film), Eli lathers up a cathartic snit about how he's had it with carrying his crazy kin on his frail young back when he could be tickling the ivories for real. The kin shape up; appropriate behavior ensues in spades; re-enter Steady Influence, smiling.
If Why Stop Now were a student's thesis film, I'd give it a gentler thumbs down. But at a time when so many gifted young indie filmmakers can't get arrested for love or money, it's discouraging to see such shoddy material go into commercial release (perhaps because of Nyswaner's clout) with a major indie distributor.
Ultimately the movie fails not just because of its cliches of plot, dialogue and character, or its inability to settle on a tone beyond screechy mayhem alternating with honeyed goo, or even its conventional sense of the absurd.
Most egregiously, Why Stop Now refuses to keep faith with its characters, to carry them as far as they can go without tying them up in a neat bow of redemption. They're crazy, but not really. They're ordinary, but at least two of them are potential superstars. Of course Eli makes it to his audition. A braver, bolder vision might then explore what it would be like to live with being pretty good, or just OK, or landing way too late to become a genius. Alas, there is only more awed silence, and the miracle of another wounded family turned around by magic.