I think Jenna Fischer is just as cute as a goddamn button. I’ve never been annoyed with her character on “The Office,” and I thought she was terrific in Blades of Glory. As an actor or actress, you worry that you’ll get pigeonholed, forced to basically play the same character ad infinitum for the rest of your career. So I can respect what Fischer was going for — trying to scrape a little Michelle Williams street cred by taking on a gritty role in an indie black comedy. But, boy, was A Little Help not the right move. It’s a terribly whiny film about a suburban mom trying to cope with being an adult with real-life responsibilities after her husband suddenly dies. The film is convinced that it’s Peter Pan, convincing thirty-somethings that it’s OK to have dreams and ambitions and don’t let your free spirit ever die, but in all honesty it’s just about a group of despicable characters constantly lying and yelling at each other. In your twenties, you might call this shit Garden State and it would be moderately acceptable. Worse yet, when you actually take a longer step back and look harder at the actual series of events, there’s nothing redeemable about anyone. You might expect this from a twenty-something working a barista/retail job convincing themselves that it’s totally worth it to still be working that paintbrush/strumming that guitar/editing that short film about the clown flipping the pancake while the vaguely ethnic hooker weeps. But this script is the first time effort of Michael J. Weithorn, a 30-year television veteran earning Primetime Emmys for shows when I was still a bad idea in my dad’s sack. Just because 30 is the new 13 doesn’t make it hip to be angsty. And Fischer isn’t shaking Pam Beasley with a Budweiser and a few f-bombs.
Laura Pehlke (Jenna Fischer) is a dental hygienist with a snarky mouth, chugging Budweisers while trying to raise her mouthy and bitter fat twelve year old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky). She’s not getting any help, physically or mentally, from either her real estate broker douche husband Bob (Chris O’Donnell) or her own family — which consists primarily of her acidically bitchy sister Kathy (Brooke Smith), her frostily bitchy mother (Leslie Ann Warren) or her caustically bitchy asshole of a dad (Rob Liebman) — though her dad’s just kind of a dick to everyone because he’s full of shit. The only one who seems to understand is her brother-in-law Paul (Rob Benedict), a smart-ass radio station assistant who wants to support his son’s ambitions to be a rock-n-roller. When Bob suffers a heart attack after a condition goes overlooked by a doctor, the family immediately steps in to tell her what to do. Her mother sends her son to a fully paid private school, the sister gets a lawyer friend (Kim Coates) to sue the doctor for malpractice, her son starts up a lie telling his classmates that his father was a fireman who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers instead of collapsing during sexual intercourse.
The movie should be darkly comic, but instead just comes off as bitter and manufactured. Weithorn sets his film in New York in 2002 solely to get the 9/11 angle. Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf War, the tsunami in Japan — there are plenty of tragedies that could have claimed the lives of her husband. The time frame has no value other than establish a dated and cheap plot point. Worse, he keeps developing plot threads and abandoning them. Paul plays hooky with his son, who resembles a Ramone podling, to bring him into the radio station to jam with Dion, singer of “Runaround Sue.” It’s a moment where he’s giving permission to his son to follow his dreams but then it’s never resolved how or if he does. The film tries to find edginess, but instead just treads lame sentiment. Fischer sits there swilling beer and smoking cigarettes and pot looking like some Teen Mom rather than a raw and life-scarred woman. And when Chris O’Donnell tells her that he doesn’t love her because she stopped taking care of herself — as if by not wearing makeup somehow pulls a reverse high-school-nerd-removing-glasses-makeover — it was all I could do not to laugh out loud.
The performances are good, with the notable exception of Benedict and Fischer, and honestly it’s more the script and direction than the actors. Leslie Ann Warren used to be Dollar Store Susan Sarandon, but she’s actually got more gravitas and severity now that she’s a little older, and it’s working nicely. She’s managed to out Sarandon on the back nine of their careers. Kim Coates is always phenomenal, and you can actually see the slime trail ooze behind him as the sleazy lawyer. Daniel Yelsky continues the proud tradition of fat young males with bowl cuts that started with Charlie Hunnam in Angus and went through Spenser Breslin and now rests with him. He’s a delightful little shit, cussing and fussing like a salty tween should. Chris O’Donnell does a nice prep-school douche, it’s kind of neat seeing him play the heavy. Brooke Smith — famous for either the pregnant Running Woman in Series 7: The Contender or as she who must put the lotion in the basket or thus get the hose again in The Silence of the Lambs is fan-fucking-tastic as the one-note sister. The most frustrating part of her character is that Weithorn is about to give her depth, to generate an amazing and astounding motivation, but then just kind of throws it away. Kathy has always been the frumpy and organized sister to Laura’s pretty free spirit. She confronts Laura, telling her how easy she’s had it because she was the pretty one. It’s a terrific and interesting point, but it quickly gets abandoned so we can follow Laura as she goes and smokes in the gazebo and waxes blander while doing NOTHING.
Rob Benedict usually plays sleazeballs ala Kim Coates, so it’s nice to see him get the opportunity to play a romantic interest. And therein lies the problem. He’s the brother-in-law. So it’s a bizarre love triangle to set up. The film might actually have been brave if it chose to have Laura throw her rotten family aside, tear apart a 15 -ear relationship with children involved, and just abandon everyone. Instead, Paul proves himself to be a fucking creepy stalker. He used to have a crush on Laura in high school, and so he decided to marry her sister because she kind of looks like her from certain angles. And now that he’s got a family and that Laura’s back on the market since her philandering husband kicked off, he makes a pass as her. Which she accepts.
That’s the problem with Laura. She’s a fucking doormat. It’s not a female empowerment film. Not that everything has to be. Nor does a film have to peopled with redeemable characters. In fact, that’s what made Rob Benedict’s The Snake so terrific. Because he’s a scumbag, but at least he has goals. Laura finds out her husband is cheating on her, and lying about it, and still she goes down on him as an apology. Laura hates her job, but works extra hours. Her son abuses her, and she takes it. Her son lies about his father’s death, and she runs with it. Her mother wants to send her son to a new school and Laura doesn’t want to let him go, but then drives him there on the first day. Her sister sends her to a lawyer and she doesn’t want to pursue a lawsuit, but then still goes through with it. Her brother-in-law tells her that he basically stalked her for twenty some years, and she finds it romantic. Jenna Fischer makes me feel like she’s an immature woman, but that’s only because she looks twenty-two. I never once buy her grittiness or faux-rebellion; it all feels an act.
A Little Help doesn’t make you care about any of the characters and then just sort of ends. It’s attempting to be a morality tale about living lies, but honesty would have been better. Otherwise, it’s pretty much every very special “Family Ties” episode crammed into a single dreadful pic. Worse yet, it’s banking on us buying Jenna Fischer as an alcoholic mess, and there’s nothing that will make that happen. The whole film feels like it’s been freeze dried with Brendan Frasier and released suddenly eight years later on an unwilling audience. I hope Fischer finds an outlet, I don’t blame her for wanting to break free from the buttondown sweetness of Pam, but this just wasn’t doing it. And seriously, it’s OK to be a dreamer, but we don’t want to hear you whitegirlproblems about it over obvious product placement. Budweiser — the king of boo fucking hoo.