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The Jesse Eisenberg Principle: “Why Stop Now”?

July 10, 2012

In the decade since his first major role, as Campbell Scott’s geeky teenage nephew in Roger Dodger, Jesse Eisenberg has established a screen persona as an angsty, overly analytical nebbish in films as diverse as Zombieland and The Social Network. Sadly, though he’s not yet 30, his shtick is starting to get old. That’s evident in his miscast role in To Rome, With Love; he’s supposed to be a younger version of Alec Baldwin’s smartass architect, but he comes across more like a neurotic junior doppelganger of writer-director-costar Woody Allen. The fact that Eisenberg’s already started to repeat himself is more painfully obvious in Why Stop Now, an indie dramedy that’s currently available on VOD in advance of its limited theatrical release next month.

Eisenberg stars as Eli, a collegiate piano prodigy who’s saddled with the task of getting his drug-addict mom (Melissa Leo) into rehab on the day of his big music-school audition. The trouble is, she’s temporarily cleaned up her act and needs to have “dirty urine” to be admitted under insurance to a 28-day facility. What follows is a series of neither particularly funny nor dramatic misadventures in which Eli gets mixed up with a pair of drug dealers (Tracy Morgan and The Wire‘s Isiah “Shee-yut!” Whitlock Jr.) as well as a gaggle of Revolutionary War reenactors. Don’t ask…

Eisenberg brought the same jittery energy to his previous turns as unlikely criminals in Holy Rollers and 30 Minutes or Less, and his character here could be a slightly more grown-up version of the nerdy high schoolers he played in The Squid and the Whale and Adventureland. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a movie star having a limited range—Cary Grant may be my favorite actor, and he’s certainly one of the most underrated in history, and no one ever confused him with a chameleon. But his image was larger than life, and Eisenberg’s is smaller and less amusing in repeated doses. Even the Woodman seemed to realize at some point that his brand of whine wasn’t improving with age and chose to spend more time behind the camera.

Leo also seems to be falling back on old tricks here. Her strung-out, tough-as-nails mom could be related to her Oscar-winning pugnacious ma in The Fighter; only the wicked Boston accent is missing. Morgan’s the only one who’s trying to stretch with a more dramatic turn than we’re used to seeing from the 30 Rock star. And while he acquits himself well in the serious scenes, he never feels dangerous or threatening, which only exacerbates the lack of tension or narrative drive in the film. Most of the blame for that falls on cowriter-directors Phil Dorling (a relative newbie) and Ron Nyswaner (a veteran screenwriter known for more earnest films like Philadelphia).

Eisenberg and Morgan have worked together before, as the voices of tropical birds in the animated romp Rio. And while this narcotics-fueled farce (a kind of Savages lite) may seem a far cry from that candy-colored cartoon, I’d be hard-pressed to identify too many differences between Why‘s Eli and Rio‘s Blu. The only change is, this time Eisenberg’s just parroting himself.

How can Jesse Eisenberg break out of the geek casting ghetto? Share your theories!

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