Film Review: A Little Help

Often tasteless study of a young widow strains viewer patience and exploits 9/11 to an obnoxious degree.

Widowhood does not sit pretty on dental hygienist Laura (Jenna Fischer), whose cheating, unavailable husband, Bob (Chris O’Donnell), suddenly drops dead from arrhythmia, leaving her with a difficult, alienated son, Dennis (Daniel Yelsky), and the rest of her family to deal with. This most unappetizing clan consists of her overbearing sister, Kathy (Brooke Smith), and mother (Lesley Ann Warren), a sportswriter father, Warren (Ron Leibman), more concerned with glorious baseball memories than her recent loss, and Kathy’s tightly wound husband, Paul (Rob Benedict), who has been secretly in love with Laura for years.

TV veteran Michael J. Weithorn (“Family Ties,” “The King of Queens”) makes his film debut as director and writer, and his roots are definitely showing. From the very beginning, in which we are informed that this takes place one year after 9/11, there is a pat glibness to his dialogue and exposition which keeps you at arm’s length from ever really becoming involved with the characters. His actors don’t get much of a chance to stretch beyond the proscribed limits of their sitcom-like, clichéd roles and ideas like having Dennis pretend that his father died a hero fireman at the World Trade Center (with Mom going along with the ruse) simply reek. Whether it’s having Warren urinate without closing the bathroom door at Bob’s funeral, Dennis getting a faux Twin Towers tattoo at a kiddie party, or having “The King of Queens” on the TV during Laura’s impulsive sex hook-up from hell, Weithorn’s taste level is questionable and off-putting.

Fischer tries for a wayward, spunky spirit of independence and basic decency, but is defeated by the material, which often makes her seem a total idiot. Owlishly pudgy Yelsky remains far too much the smoothly show-biz pro, with his studied reactions and delivery, to generate0 much sympathy. (There’s the spirit of Milton Berle somehow lurking in that little body.) Kim Coates really pushes things over the edge as a sleazy attorney hired to score Laura a big medical malpractice payday, making you wonder if the family found him in an ad on the subway. Leibman is a tiresome pain in the ass, while Warren, with nothing really to play except clueless bossiness, just looks the victim of one too many chemical peels.

Benedict strains for a kind of misunderstood pathos that might get to the more susceptible audience members. He plays a radio disc jockey, which somehow calls for a cameo appearance by pop singer Dion Di Mucci, in one of the film’s many “What the…?” moments (like that squawking parrot in the dentist’s office). Smith, always a strong and likeable presence even in an unsympathetic part, is more sympathetic than Fischer, while O’Donnell, who shows there is still an actor beneath those preternaturally pretty looks, provides virtually the only performance interest here.