As anyone who’s ever dealt with drug or alcohol addiction knows, cessation, treatment and sobriety can all be difficult, life-long challenges. Regardless of how an addict gets clean (support groups, medical programs, cold turkey, psychotherapy, hypnosis or prison), the very first step must always be their own, genuine desire to get clean. Until a junkie, any junkie, can actually look themselves in the mirror and express that desire, no process or procedure, short of death, will have any lasting effect. Friends, family and authority figures may all want the very best for an addict but, in the end, the only voice that will really make a difference is their own. Once that decision has been reached, for lack of any less schmaltzy way to put it, the actual healing can begin.
Why Stop Now (2012), the feature-film debut of co-writers/directors Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner, deals with the issue of addicts deciding to get help, although the film’s main focus ends up being the fractured relationship between a perpetually fucked-up mother and her increasingly frustrated, jaded son. Despite a worthwhile subject and some solid performances, however, Why Stop Now ends up fading into the “indie dramedy background,” failing to do much to distinguish it from any of a bakers’ dozen of similarly “heartfelt” message films. A pity, to be sure, since casting Melissa Leo as the dysfunctional mom would seem to guarantee a real firecracker of a film: in the end, however, Why Stop Now is more fizzle than sizzle, a spark that never manages to fully catch fire.
Eli Bloom (Jesse Eisenberg) is a young man with a lot going for him: he’s smart, independent, a piano prodigy and has just been offered an audition for a coveted spot at a prestigious music conservatory. Everything, it seems, is coming up Milhouse for the guy. The other half of the coin, however, doesn’t look quite as shiny: Eli is also confrontational, has a tendency to get ridiculously drunk at parties and puke everywhere (sometimes while playing the piano, for added spice), works a shitty job as a bag-boy and has a home-life that could best be described as “difficult,” with a side of “complicated.” His mother, Penny (Melissa Leo), is a “whatta ya got” kind of drug addict and has spent years in a chemical haze, leaving Eli to care for his younger sister, Nicole (Emma Rayne Lyle), who appears to be a high-functioning autistic, albeit one who communicates via a sarcastic, obnoxious and mean-spirited hand puppet named “Julio.” The Brady Bunch, it ain’t.
While Penny has never been able to get her shit together, the situation has just become critical: the music conservatory is in Boston, meaning Eli would be away from home, out-of-state, for over a year. Since he can’t be in two places at the same time, however, enrolling in the academy will leave his single mom as the sole caretaker for his sister, a role that she’s never been able to handle. In preparation for this, Eli needs to get Penny into a rehab facility post-haste, a necessity which she, naturally, fights at every step of the way. When he finally gets her to agree, however, fate steps in and backhands him once again: Penny has been sober just long enough to pass a drug test which, combined with her lack of insurance, means that she’s not eligible for the rehab facility. When one of the doctors “helpfully” suggests that Penny go cop, in order to fail her test and get admitted, Eli knows what he has to do: get his mom blitzed in order to help her get sober.
Nothing is ever that easy, however, as Eli discovers when it’s time to go score some dope. Seems that Penny owes quite a bit of change to her usual dealer, Sprinkles (Tracy Morgan), and is a little afraid to show her face. While attempting to negotiate with Sprinkles and his partner, Black (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), they discover that Eli can speak Spanish. This ends up coming in handy, since Sprinkles and Black need to make a buy from their source and don’t speak his language (leading astute viewers to wonder how, exactly, they managed to do this before Eli came along…Pictures? An English to Spanish dictionary? An intern?). The two agree to hook Eli (and Penny) up in exchange for his acting as translator. This, of course, leads to a series of minor adventures that culminates in Eli injuring one of his highly valued hands. With his audition in two hours, the sand is rapidly slipping through the hourglass. Will Eli be able to get his mother squared away in time to make his audition? Will he even be able to play with an injured hand? Will Eli finally gather up his nerve and ask out the cute Revolutionary War reenacter (Sarah Ramos) who’s been showing an obvious interest in him for the entire film? Will the two drug dealers ever get tired of hanging around with a piano prodigy, his puppet-sporting little sister and addict mom? If you’re not able to guess the answer to any and all of these questions, Why Stop Now may very well surprise…but I seriously doubt it.
The biggest issue with Why Stop Now, aside from its rather blah cinematography (the blown-out, constantly shaky cam gets old almost immediately) is how familiar everything is. Minutes into the film, I thought to myself: “This is where Eli’s voiceover comes in” and, lo and behold, there it was, right on cue. I assumed that Sprinkles would have some sort of “quirky” secret and he does. The part where Eli finally gathers up his courage and pursues Chloe is right where it’s supposed to be, as is the scene where Eli finally loses it and reads the riot act to everyone, including his little sister. We get the obligatory audition scene. Hell, we even get one of those “let’s see how happy everyone is” montages, just like the rule-book states.
There are just no surprises here, whatsoever. For some movies, that might not be an issue but when your film slavishly checks “requirements” off a list, you better have at least a few twists up your sleeve. In this case, however, Dorling and Nyswaner just go through the motions and give us what’s expected. There are plenty of solid performances here but nothing that we haven’t seen from these actors before, with the possible exception of Tracy Morgan: with only shades of his Tracy Jordan persona, Morgan is much more serious than expected and extremely effective. Eisenberg and Leo do nothing unique (or particularly interesting) whatsoever and Sarah Ramos might as well be playing her character from TV’s Parenthood. The only real stand-out is child actor Lyle, who makes the character of Nicole completely empathetic, if slightly otherworldly. As only her fifth (listed) acting role, Lyle promises to be an actor to watch in the next several years: perhaps we’re in on the ground-floor of the next Chloe Grace Moretz?
Another problem I had with the film is how relatively low-stakes it feels: while there’s an element of “race against time” for part of the film’s running time, that element goes out the window as soon as Eli gets injured. From that point on, it’s no longer about getting there in time so much as “will he be able to play” and we already know that answer, long before Eli does. The film also seems to fracture at the conclusion, with all of the characters meandering off into a multitude of directions and no unifying sense of cohesion: rather than coming to a definitive conclusion, everything just kind of peters out, like a car running on fumes.
Despite my above concerns, Why Stop Now isn’t a terrible film: it’s just a thoroughly pedestrian, run-of-the-mill one. I can certainly appreciate some of what the film has to say about addiction and recovery (the bit where Penny advises her son to keep an eye on his own alcohol issues is particularly sharp and powerful), although a lot of it falls into the realm of feel-good, pop psychology. There’s also an ironic core to the film that almost comes across as one, long, sustained set-up for a punchline: Penny can’t turn down drugs until she actually needs to get high, at which point she learns that she doesn’t want to do them anymore, yet must…sustained trumpet wah-wah. Again, I can appreciate the irony but the film’s message gets conflicted and confused, in the process. When all of the elements come together, such as the very funny scene where Eli tries to start his car while Sprinkles, Black and Penny provide non-stop “armchair-quarterbacking,” Why Stop Now is a fun, if decidedly non-essential, way to pass some time. Anyone looking for any real insight into either drug addiction or dysfunctional families, however, would be better served elsewhere. Why Stop Now is perfectly non-offensive, no two ways about it, but it really is a film that could have (and should have) got its hands just a little bit dirty.