Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Review: "A Little Help"
It's always interesting to see a tiny independent film with some big-name actors -- well, recognizable ones, anyway -- in the cast. By most accounts, these performers have enjoyed a level of success that most indie denizens can only fantasize about. So why do they opt to appear in grade-Z productions, no doubt for a small fraction of their usual salary?
Probably for the same reason any thespian worth their salt does: Because they want to be challenged, and perhaps get out of their comfort zone.
"A Little Help" is certainly different from how we've seen Jenna Fischer before. The bubbly, adorable star of "The Office" and several notable films -- and a Fort Wayne native -- gets to play damaged goods. It's a strong, brave performance, although I admit I kept detecting notes of comedy that perhaps didn't belong.
Writer/director Michael J. Weithorn, a TV veteran, bobbles between humorous and dramatic tones for the first half of the film, which ultimately turns dark and dour. I kept expecting black comedy, and just found more black.
Still, it's a decent feature film debut. Weithorn juggles a fairly large cast and manages to make every character seem substantial and authentic.
Besides Fischer, other familiar faces include Chris O'Donnell, Lesley Ann Warren and Brooke Smith.
What I found most interesting about this film is how all the characters seemed to divide into two different teams, without anyone ever noticing or commenting upon it. Basically, some of them are soulful screw-ups while the others are harsh yet sensible types.
Laura (Fischer) is definitely in the screw-up category. A thirtysomething dental assistant, Laura's in a failing marriage with Bob (O'Donnell) and has a 12-ish son, Dennis (a promising Daniel Yelsky), whose disregard for his mother is stupendous, even by preteen standards.
Laura's sister Kathy (Smith) is the polar opposite. Careful, pushy, Kathy resents always having to be the responsible grown-up to those around her. With the help of their equally persnickety mom (Warren) and emotionally absent father (a wonderful Ron Leibman) -- who'd rather spin tales from his day as a top sportswriter -- Kathy treats her kid sister like an annoying tyke, always getting into trouble.
Kathy's husband Paul (Rob Benedict) is closer to Laura in his outlook. Like his father-in-law, he deals with his wife's harsh buzz by checking out to self-medicate. He encourages his teen son, a budding musician, to pursue his dreams, even if it doesn't measure up to Kathy's notion of success.
When a life-changing event happens, it bends Laura's world askew. She was basically unhappy, nursing a borderline alcoholic craving for beer, but at least her world had some sense of stability. With all her safety nets removed, she's faced with exactly how little she's progressed since high school.
The individual scenes between characters are energetic and hefty, but put together they are less than the sum or their parts. An attraction between two characters seems prepared to become a major event, and then it's aborted, but the two still act as if they own the emotional weight of it actually happening.
I know one thing: In the eternal conflict between the cool kids and the grinds, I prefer to watch movies about the cool kids. But I'd much rather live with the more serious ones.
2.5 stars out of four