Life's low point is her ceiling
By John DeFore
Friday, Aug 05, 2011
A grating portrait of domestic malfunction, "A Little Help" presents an extended family so unpleasant that its most enviable member is the one who dies in the opening scenes.
Lucky or not, even that character is unlikable - a philandering husband played by Chris O'Donnell, who is a little too convincing as a man whose self-regard isn't justified by anything we can see.
O'Donnell drops dead on the day his wife, Laura (Jenna Fischer), realizes he's having an affair - evidently because she has "let herself go." Movie magic fails to make Fischer so physically unattractive that she could drive a man to cheat, but writer/director Michael J. Weithorn does succeed in quashing the charm she displays on "The Office": Laura has thrown her hands up on both life and parenthood, swilling booze desolately - if Budweiser and Absolut Vodka paid to have their products promoted here, they deserve a refund - and barely making an effort with a son, Dennis, who openly insults and defies her.
Laura's choices are second-guessed by everyone around, especially the sister and mother (Brooke Smith and Lesley Ann Warren, one-upping each other with nuance-free shrewishness) who bully her into moving Dennis to a private school and starting a malpractice suit against her husband's doctor. Fans of Fischer's more spunky characters will be disappointed, maybe even bewildered, by Laura's passivity, which extends to abetting her son's revolting ploy for popularity at his new school: He tells friends and teachers that his father died while saving people on Sept. 11, 2001.
Weithorn, who until now has worked as a sitcom writer, appears to view his dialogue as an edgy, unvarnished depiction of how unhappy family members speak to one another. But realism is just what this screenplay lacks: "Loved ones" with this much contempt for one another tend to express it in much less direct ways. At least, the ones worth making movies about do.
While waiting for its heroine to stand up for herself, the movie fills time with tangents that are either crass or random, such as a cameo by aging singer Dion.
By the time Weithorn uses a clip of his old show "The King of Queens" as the backdrop for a dispiriting hook-up between Laura and a sleazeball played by one of Comedy Central's "Crank Yankers" (Jim Florentine), "A Little Help" may seem to have hit bottom. It finds a bit further to fall, however, before its attempt to set everything straight with some out-of-nowhere sentimentality and courage. The next chapter in Laura's story might be something worth rooting for, but here's hoping she has a different writer penning her lines.
Contains language, some sexual content and drug use.