On the day of his big audition, a piano prodigy (Jesse Eisenberg) winds up going wackily far out of his way to get the rest of his family’s life in order, going so far as to help his cokehead mother (Melissa Leo) score drugs in “Predisposed.” Designed for hilarity by writing-directing duo Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner, this antic unbelievable-afternoon adventure settles for mildly amusing as it recycles a style of manufactured kookiness more endearing among indies a decade or so ago. Expanded from a short (also starring Leo), the feature should connect with specialty auds predisposed to smartish dramedy fare.
At the risk of misinterpreting the title, one possibility of what “Predisposed” is up to is a riff on the elusive origins of talent. In light of his junkie parents, Eli (Eisenberg) can’t account for where his exceptional piano-playing abilities come from; however, he has every reason to fear that he could inherit his mom’s self-destructively addictive nature. Such anxieties, pitched into overdrive by the “Social Network” star playing things even buggier than usual, account for behavior so far out of the ordinary, the script strains credibility at every turn.
Eli’s day begins with driving his mother to rehab. Leo, who has made a career playing high-strung matriarchs (“Frozen River,” “The Fighter,” “Dear Lemon Lima”), is predictably wide-eyed and bonzo as Penny, but the fact that the character is conceived to grate on Eli’s nerves doesn’t make the experience of watching her any less annoying for the audience. When the clinic’s urine test reveals no drugs in Penny’s system, the admitting counselor offers her the highly unorthodox advice of coming back high.
After watching his mother’s struggles with addiction for more than 20 years, Eli is so determined to see her get clean that he’s willing to push her off the wagon one last time, even if it means going out and scoring drugs himself. Dorling and Nyswaner seem to interpret this odd social-care paradox as an opportunity for comic absurdity, when in fact, there’s such profound tragedy in the situation (where asking for help is not enough, but patients must demonstrate a chemical need for it), the playfully off-kilter adventure that follows borders on bad taste.
First stop is the house of Sprinkles the drug dealer, played with jocular good nature by Tracy Morgan. Sprinkles and his accomplice Black (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) are out of stock when Eli arrives, and the two don’t know enough Spanish to manage a reup negotiation with their supplier, Eduardo (Paul Calderon). Lucky for them, Eli knows Spanish, and before he knows it, the straight-laced nerdy boy has been pulled into the center of a drug run.
The script supplies additional subplots, including a lame romantic tangent involving Sarah Ramos (not interesting enough to quality as a love interest) and a cutesy bit in which Eli’s younger sister (amusing newcomer Emma Rayne Lyle) acts out her frustrations via an off-color sock puppet. But they only complicate an equation in which everything is designed to keep Eli from going to his audition. If he aces the performance, he stands a real chance at escaping his family and attending a prestigious musical conservatory. But that would be too easy, and the script throws everything from hand injuries to a bizarre Revolutionary War re-enactment parade in his way.
Production values are pro, while the music — a mix of complex piano pieces and Spencer David Hutchings’ anxiety-heightening score — and off-kilter editing during the film’s crazier moments make for a ride that spends much of its time stuck in an unpleasantly cartoonish register.