Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 108 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Age Appropriate for: 16+. I’d say the R rating is mainly for cursing and the themes about Sept. 11, 2001, and death, but there’s no violence or graphic sex to speak of. There are two implied sex scenes but no nudity, drinking and marijuana use, and emotional elements about loneliness and rejection; it’s all fair game for older teens.
‘A Little Help’ is not what its title suggests. It’s disjointed, boring and incredibly unnecessary — and won’t resonate with viewers in any real way.
By Roxana Hadadi
So this dental hygienist thinks her husband is having an affair. Then he dies. Then she’s left alone with her overbearing family and her overweight son, and soon they’re all telling lies to each other to get through it, but then she thinks maybe she’d be better off sleeping with her sister’s husband, who has harbored an attraction for her since high school.
And then … nothing. No resolution, no decisions, no believably meaningful conclusion. “A Little Help” starts, and then 108 minutes later, it just ends. What happens during the film isn’t at all significant.
The problem with this movie — about Laura (Jenna Fischer), a former high school pretty girl trapped in a bad marriage with Bob (Chris O’Donnell), whose death then leads her to fully realize how her family members, neighbors and her own son view her — is that nothing about it is very compelling. It’s not thematically dark enough to be a true drama, or full of enough humor to be a real comedy, or even romantic enough to redeem its eye-roll-inducing love story. It’s a bunch of random elements thrown together into one unclear, muddled plot, with characters so unlikeable it’s impossible to care what happens to any of them. So what if the overweight kid’s friends suddenly turn on him? Maybe he shouldn’t have lied so much.
“A Little Help” gets it wrong from the get-go: The film begins with Laura cleaning someone’s teeth, and as soon she launches into critiquing her husband and crying about his faults during the appointment, you know the movie is going to present awkward scenes as a sign of emotional depth. Ten months after Sept. 11, 2001, Laura is completely lost: She can’t connect with her surly, chubby son, Dennis (Daniel Yelsky); with her husband, Bob, who keeps working long hours at his real estate office; and she smokes and chugs beers as a way of … well, that’s not clear, really. Is she an addict? Is she a former party girl who hasn’t given up her ways? Director and writer Michael J. Weithorn presents numerous scenes of her with cigarettes and Budweiser, and characters from her husband to her sister to her mother critique her constantly, but what’s the big deal?
Anyway. Laura is lost, floating adrift in her meaningless job and seemingly meaningless relationship, until Bob suddenly dies and her sister Kathy (Brooke Smith) hires litigator Mel (Kim Coates) to sue Bob’s doctor for not properly diagnosing his heart arrhythmia. But Laura, convinced that Bob was having an affair and lied to his doctor about his condition in order to avoid coming clean, is worried about the ethical nature of the suit. As she struggles with that dilemma, though, she goes along with a lie Dennis tells other students about how his father died, a more offensive untruth that endears him to others but will ultimately shame Laura. And then on the outskirts there’s Paul (Rob Benedict), Kathy’s husband who has yearned for Laura since high school and sees a slight opportunity now that Bob is gone. How Laura deals with everyone’s expectations, from Kathy to Mel to Dennis to Paul, determines whether she actually needs “a little help” or not.
Really, though, it’s Weithorn (who previously created the TV sitcom “The King of Queens”) who requires it. The film suffers from thoroughly puzzling plot and character development: It’s unclear whether Bob was really having an affair, why Dennis harbors such resentment toward his mother, how Laura screwed up so royally that her parents and sister hate her, why Paul continues feeling affection toward Laura when she’s never truly noticed him before, why Kathy cares so much about Laura getting a medical malpractice settlement, why Laura goes along with all the lies, blah blah blah.
Fischer careens effectively between Laura’s self-absorbed paranoia, concern for Dennis and defensiveness toward her family, but because there’s no established basis for any of her bizarre behavior, Fischer doesn’t ever really seem like she’s an actual widower — just Pam from “The Office” playing one. Benedict will connect the most with audiences as the dreamy, romantic Paul, but just because he has one speech about how he loves Laura doesn’t mean he’s a fully developed entity. The same goes for Yelsky, who nails being unbearably sarcastic and maladjusted but doesn’t seem like a true child until one of the film’s final scenes.
Weithorn should have ditched the wacky plot twists, Fischer’s constantly anguished facial expressions and all the emotional dumping in favor of a plot that made more sense and characters who felt more real. Without those integral elements, “A Little Help” is a barren wasteland of bad.
“A Little Help” is playing in limited release in the Washington, D.C., area. Showtimes are available at AMC Loews Shirlington 7 in Arlington, Va.