Comedy and drama prove uneasy bedfellows in Why Stop Now, a succinct independent with a powerhouse cast and just enough emotional resonance to earn a pass. Although an uneven opening act proves a difficult hurdle to clear, co-writers/co-directors Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner get a welcome boost from stars Melissa Leo, Jesse Eisenberg, and a limping Tracy Morgan once the forced quirk takes a backseat to the drama at the center of this gently tragic tale.
Piano prodigy Eli Bloom (Eisenberg) has a problem. On the same day he has an audition that could earn him admission into a prominent musical conservatory, he has to get his drug-addicted mother Penny (Leo) into rehab so she can care for his younger sister Nicole (Emma Rayne Lyle) when he leaves for his studies. But when Penny's urine turns up clean during check-in, the staff tell her that insurance won't cover her stay unless drugs are found in her system. Desperate, Eli and Penny go to Penny's dealer Sprinkles (Morgan) so she can get high and earn her stay in rehab. Along the way, things don't quite go as planned, and after severely injuring his hand, accidentally taking a massive dose of Oxycontin, declaring his love for pretty Revolutionary War reenactor Chloe (Sarah Ramos), and trying to convince Nicole to silence the foulmouthed sock puppet that she uses as a buffer to the outside world, Eli must pull off a performance strong enough to earn him a spot at the conservatory and break the cycle of dysfunction that threatens to destroy his family.
Initially striking the tone of a darker Little Miss Sunshine clone, Dorling and Nyswaner's seriocomic story feels a bit too self-conscious as the capable cast struggle to inject some lighthearted levity into the mix, and composer Spencer Dave Hutchings reinforces the comedy of this pitiful fiasco rather than the drama. But once the movie becomes less about the absurd situation and more about the character conflicts at its core, things start to come together quite nicely. Those faltering early scenes do possess story elements that are crucial to the effectiveness of the drama, although it's only once they're in the rearview mirror that we can genuinely appreciate what's at stake as Eli puts his own dreams of success on hold in order to care for his family. It's this inherent sweetness that succeeds in pulling Why Stop Now out of the awkward tailspin that opens the film, and, somewhat surprisingly, Morgan helps to take the reins while delivering a poignant speech about his glory days as a championship sprinter. Fans of SNL and 30 Rock are familiar with the comic performer's outrageous persona, but by poignantly conveying his character's tragedy, Morgan successfully turns the tide in favor of drama without throwing viewers for a loop. Meanwhile, Eisenberg serves up a potent blend of frustration, fear, and guarded optimism as the reluctant enabler, and Leo embodies the spirit of an addict whose good intentions can't make up for the compulsive self-destructive streak threatening the future of both of her children.
So while Why Stop Now may be a flawed film, the good news is that the actors ensure that it isn't a total misfire. For fans of Eisenberg and Leo, that should come as a relief, but for those partial to Morgan, it's actually something of a revelation.