Jenna Fischer Falls Victim to Weak Screenwriting in ‘A Little Help’

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Average: 4 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 2.0/5.0
Rating: 2.0/5.0

CHICAGO – Despite the best efforts by Jenna Fischer (“The Office”) playing against type as a smoking, drinking newly-single mother, “A Little Help” is a mess. This dramedy consists of the kind of characters one only sees in a movie theater and usually only in an indie flick that thinks it’s much smarter and has much more to say about the human condition than it actually does.

I can’t stress enough how few of the problems with this deeply-flawed film can be traced back to the lovely Fischer, an actress who never got the credit she deserved for the perfect comic timing she’s displayed on “The Office.” She borders on great here. It’s everything BUT her with which I have a problem – the two-dimensional supporting characters, the clichéd writing, the non-ending, the leaden direction. Fischer is the one who could have used a little help.

She stars as a New York dental hygienist in 2002 (the date and location will be very important) named Laura, a woman with all the typical problems of an indie dramedy – a cheating husband (Chris O’Donnell), an obnoxious son (Daniel Yelsky), a horrible mother (Lesley Ann Warren), and an even-worse sister (Brooke Smith). Her husband dies unexpectedly very early in the film and the rest is at least somewhat about picking up the pieces after a sudden, shocking tragedy…not unlike 9/11.

A Little Help
A Little Help
Photo credit: Freestyle Releasing

The parallel becomes even more clear after Laura’s son Dennis decides not to tell his classmates that his dad died during a sex act but that he passed away a heroic firefighter who saved three people in the towers before going back in one too many times. Laura is somewhat forced to go along with the story or risk her fragile son’s complete destruction by his classmates and teachers, but it’s one of those movie set-ups that one knows is only going to end badly.

Meanwhile, two important men play roles in Laura’s life – an attorney (Kim Coates) hired by Laura’s sister in an effort to get a medical malpractice suit against the doctor who incorrectly diagnosed her husband and her brother-in-law Paul (Rob Benedict), a nice guy who clearly has always pined for his sister-in-law. You would too if you were married to the worst sibling of the movie year. Brooke Smith’s Kathy is a movie creation, the kind of evil, spiteful shrew designed to make Laura’s flaws easier to understand and Lesley Ann Warren’s mother is similarly devised in a way that doesn’t feel genuine.

Laura’s relationship with her family feels disingenuous but it’s nothing compared to the completely unrealistic dynamic between her and her son, a crucial element of the film that never locks into place in an organic way. Everything about it feels forced and it’s nearly miraculous that Fischer found a kernel of truth in a screenplay that almost always feels false. Benedict is the only other actor in the piece who finds that realistic tone and feels like more than a device, as proven by the fact that their scenes together (especially one in a gazebo involving a pot-fueled confession) are easily the best in the film. Everything else needed some help.

“A Little Help” stars Jenna Fischer, Rob Benedict, Chris O’Donnell, Brooke Smith, Daniel Yelsky, Lesley Ann Warren, Rob Leibman, and Kim Coates. It was written and directed by Michael J. Weithorn. content director Brian Tallerico

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