‘A Little Help’: But only a little

July 21, 2011

With stronger writing, “A Little Help” could have been one of those minor black-comedy indy gems, along the line of “The Joneses” and “The TV Set,” the kind that develops a strong after-life even though it’s overlooked when it’s in theaters.

Instead, it’s just OK, a set of interesting ideas wrapped in a less-interesting package, tied together by the evocative central performance of Jenna Fischer, finally stepping out of the Pam range she shows on “The Office.”

In this film written and directed by Michael Weithorn (whose prime credit is as a writer/producer on “King of Queens”), Fischer plays Laura, who is in a stalled and unhappy marriage with Bob (Chris O’Donnell), who seems to always be working. It’s the summer of 2002 and her fractious family is gathering at the home of her bossy, obnoxious sister Kathy (Brooke Smith) for a barbecue. Her parents are judgmental, her son is a pain, her husband is late and terse – only her brother-in-law, Paul (Rob Benedict), seems to notice her distress.

After a fight with Bob, Laura runs out of her sister’s house – and when Bob chases her, he suddenly collapses. A trip to the emergency room leads to a diagnosis of a panic attack. But that night, as she’s performing orally on Bob, he has another spell – and this one is in fact a heart attack, a fatal one.

Laura is left without sufficient financial resources, even as her sister pushes her to file a malpractice suit against the hospital that let Bob go home after what was obviously an earlier heart attack. Meanwhile, her parents pressure her to put her son into a snooty private school (where he makes friends by telling people that his father died in 9/11). And Laura finds herself dealing with an aggressive malpractice attorney, as well as the ripples of her son’s lie about Bob’s death.

As noted, there are plenty of elements here from which to craft a knowing, witty and rueful story. That lingering cloud of 9/11, Laura’s sense of impending doom, the gradual revelations about Bob that the malpractice suit brings out – a better writer would have made more of this.

But the writing is flat and a little thin. There are plenty of possibilities but Weithorn doesn’t seem to know how to exploit them. Whatever your opinion of “King of Queens,” it regularly churned out punchlines. But “A Little Help” – which wants to be about missed opportunities for empathy and connection – can’t find its way to dark laughs, despite a layered performance by Fischer and by Benedict, as the brother-in-law who carries a secret torch for Laura. Similarly, Smith, as the abrasive sister, and Kim Coates, as Laura’s sharklike lawyer, both have comic potential left unexplored in characters that are written in one dimension.

“A Little Help” obviously needs a little help. Too late.

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