Monday, August 1, 2011

A Little Help: Definitely needs some

A Little Help (2010) • View trailer for A Little Help
Three stars. Rating: R, for profanity, sexual content and drug use
By Derrick Bang

Writer/director Michael J. Weithorn's little film loses its way in the very first scene.

We meet our heroine, dental hygienist Laura Pehlke (Jenna Fischer), in a patient's-eye view as she bends toward the camera with a probe in hand, preparing to scrape the plaque from the teeth of some poor fellow reclining in the chair. The office pet, a gorgeous parrot with a vocabulary of two words — "Rinse, please," repeated over and over — gets on her last ragged nerve. The bird is intended to be soothing for patients; Laura finds it anything but (and who can blame her?).
Remembering the fun they often had while singing along with the radio, Laura
(Jenna Fischer) tries to cheer up her son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) with the same
tactic. But Dennis, having just entered his teenage years, can't be bothered ...
or so he'd like everybody to believe.

The scene is played for giggles: not knee-slapping gales of laughter, but chuckles at the very least.

We take our cues, going into a film, from the way early scenes are composed: atmosphere, lighting, camera angles, dialogue, the physical bearing of anybody in frame. Weithorn thus prepares us for something light and gentle: perhaps a larkish romantic comedy, perhaps a ruefully perceptive sketch of a thirtysomething woman at loose ends.

Instead, a few scenes later, we're doused with poisonous relationship dynamics that qualify as indefensible cruelty: not just to Laura, but to us viewers. Suddenly, we're in Weithorn's riff on the raw, bitter, family-verité vitriol of Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married. The abrupt change of tone is akin to whiplash.

Laura suffers abuse from every quarter: the marriage from hell, the sister and parents from hell. She apparently endures this mistreatment because somewhere, long ago, she resigned herself to it. We've no idea why, nor will we ever find out. Weithorn fails to supply the roughly 45 minutes of back-story that would justify any of this.

Husband Bob (Chris O'Donnell), habitually coming home late from work, obviously is having an affair. Laura plays doormat as she tries to ignore the screamingly blatant signs; Bob parries direct questions with complaints that he'd feel more like making love to her, if she "hadn't let herself go."

Jenna Fischer? Let herself go? Good Lord, she couldn't be any cuter. Hearing Bob claim otherwise makes him sound like an idiot. More disconnect.

Granted, it has become Hollywood custom for gorgeous young actresses to wind up in stories that find them a) unloved; b) unable to find boyfriends or girlfriends; c) deemed "plain"; and/or d) generally cast aside as ugly ducklings who've not yet blossomed. Depending on the film, we either smile in tolerant amusement or roll our eyes with irritation. This one goes way beyond irritation, since Laura's "appearance" is at the core of Weithorn's script.

Okay, fine; she smokes a bit. Not excessively. And she drinks a bit. Again, not excessively. She can't quite figure out how to deal with her young misfit son, Dennis (Daniel Yelsky). He has just entered the teen years; who can deal with kids that age?

This woman's in pain, fergawdsake; since we're apparently expected to view this as a real-world story, as opposed to the frothy fantasyland of a light comedy, every other character's failure to recognize and/or acknowledge this eventually becomes ludicrous.

Laura and Bob, regardless of their mutual antagonism, are expected to attend regular family barbecues hosted by her sister Kathy (Brooke Smith) and husband Paul (Rob Benedict). Kathy, a paralyzingly blunt control freak, belittles Laura at every turn; that's nothing compared to the ghastly nasty tone directed at Laura by her mother, Joan (Lesley Ann Warren). One diatribe, concerning where Dennis should attend school, spews from Joan's mouth like liquid poison. Over-written, over-acted.

Smith and Warren do not play real people; they're grotesque cartoons on par with Cinderella's evil step-mother and step-sisters. And again, we wonder: What is Weithorn after, with such caricatures? Is there a point, or is he merely a bad director?

That said, Fischer — despite Laura's overstated flaws — is appealing, vulnerable and generally sympathetic. Many of her scenes with Yelsky feel authentic: a confused parent trying to re-connect with a son who, despite a strong bond that probably snapped only a few months ago, now pushes her away. At moments of great crisis, Dennis e-mails his mother from his bedroom; she reads his anguish on the screen of her computer, down in the kitchen. These are touching moments.

Laura also connects well with Paul, a similarly placid soul who does his best to stay out of his wife's way. Paul works at a radio station and has communicated this love for music with his teenage son, a garage guitarist with genuine potential. Kathy, of course, regards this as a total waste of time.

The point of all this, we gradually learn, is that Laura never has been in control of her life. Now, suddenly, following a devastating loss, she's forced ever more into utter immobility, still buffeted by people who insist on treating her like a 5-year-old. Taking paths of least resistance, she retreats further behind half-truths and mild lies; Dennis, following her lead, re-invents himself once forced to attend that private school of his grandmother's choice.

Weithorn's story is set in 2002; Dennis' whopper of a lie, trading on post-9/11 sympathy, makes us cringe while anticipating the boy's eventual, inevitable exposure. Again, though, we identify with him; he's stuck in a school he hates, and trying the build himself a favorable reputation. Such schemes never work; we know this because many of us have contemplated such tactics during idle flights of fancy.

And Yelsky also earns our sympathy; he's a persuasive young actor.

Ron Leibman is a hoot as Laura and Kathy's father, a retired sports journalist forever re-living — and exaggerating — his career exploits. Paul loves to wind the old guy up, and Leibman's annoyed bluster will remind you of a beloved uncle driven to exasperation.

Kim Coates is pitch-perfect as a lawyer with just enough surface smarm to leave us wondering about his actual motivations, and whether he's truly offering Laura the best possible advice. Again, it's a solid, wholly credible performance.

Unfortunately, these better-developed and performed characters account for engaging but isolated scenes: memorable moments lost in the overall clumsiness of Weithorn's script. Just as we get no back-story to justify Laura's shameful treatment by both mother and sister, we receive insufficient closure on several key issues. The split-parenting arguments concerning Paul and Kathy's son goes nowhere; we've no idea what will happen to this kid. Just in passing, he also has a twin sister who — aside from a token introduction, as she obsesses over a deviled egg appetizer — remains MIA for most of the movie.

And while we can assume that Laura realizes the need to stand on her own two feet, as the third act concludes, I'm not persuaded that she has figured out how to tell her mother and sister to stuff it. Just as Weithorn begins this film sloppily, he concludes it rather jarringly; the story simply stops. True, real life is that way; we don't get neat resolutions to all or even most of our problems. But that gets back to the core issue here; Weithorn's story isn't sufficiently real to permit so many ambiguities, nor is it contrived enough to be dismissed as fantasy.

Jakob Dylan, son of the mighty Bob, contributes and performs numerous songs throughout the film. The songs themselves are sensitive and haunting; Weithorn's use of them is irritating. Too many contemporary directors mistakenly assume that they have the talent of, say, John Hughes or Cameron Crowe, when it comes to blending on-screen drama against background ballads and pop songs. The result is a surfeit of pointless song montages and badly placed music; Weithorn's use of Dylan's material here too frequently works against a given scene's mood.

Fischer, an engaging presence during many seasons of television's The Office, is making a big-screen starring bid here. She handles herself with reasonable dignity, but deserves far better material,. Weithorn — a longtime TV writer making his big-screen directing debut, as well — needs a better grasp of the vastly different elements required by a two-hour movie, as opposed to a 30-minute sitcom episode.

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