Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Little Help - Theatrical Review




A LITTLE HELP





Release Date: July 22, 2011

I saw this movie because of Jenna Fischer. There was no attachment to the material, no knowledge of the director or filmmakers in general and I never saw one trailer for it. All I wanted was to see Jenna in what I believe to be her first starring role in a feature film. I got what I wanted...but that was all I got.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Edwards University Town Center 6 Irvine
Time: 9:30 pm July 27, 2011
Projector Type: Film

Biases:
Loves: Jenna Fischer
Likes: Dramas dealing with family issues
Neutral: Creepy brother in laws
Hates: Having to dislike such a likable actress
Strange: The use of 9/11 as the backdrop to the story




It's not often that I will drop what I am doing to seek out (and that is exactly what I had to do with this one) a movie based only on the appeal of its leading lady. It's not so much that I love the work of Jenna Fischer, the only major thing she has been a part of that I have seen is the television show The Office along with some smaller roles in movies most notably in the underrated Walk Hard. But I can see a lot of potential for her as an actress just like I did many years ago with the likes of Eva Green and Rose Byrne both of whom have gone on to have great careers. Going into that empty theater in the middle of the week I was fairly optimistic despite not knowing a thing about the movie I was going to watch which is usually how I prefer it. My wait for her breakout role will have to wait though because although Jenna gives it her all this is not the movie it tried to be and should have been.

Laura (Jenna Fischer) is your average middle aged woman who has a loving husband (Chris O'Donnell) who is almost never home, a son (Daniel Yelsky) who treats her like garbage, a secure job that doesn't pay very well and a family that is beyond overbearing. She has all the pieces needed to have the perfect life yet nothing seems to feel right. Over the years of her marriage she has become lazy letting her husband handle all their financial issues and has even taken up smoking and drinking to help deal with her semi-depression. However her life gets turned upside down one day when tragedy strikes and she finds herself a widowed mother all of a sudden. Without her husband around to take care of the financial obligations and a son that gets increasingly disturbed by each passing moment she soon finds herself in the middle of a life crisis. She gets some support from her brother in law Paul (Rob Benedict) who has had a secret crush on her ever since their high school days but other than that she is on her own. Laura must find a way to work out her issues and become the adult (and mother) she never thought she could be.

Laura is a dental assistant who has a few too many life issues.

I really wanted to like this movie, I really did. The story it tells and the message it delivers is a good one. It deals with choices and how the choices we make every day determine the path our lives take. More importantly though it tackles the difficult subject of how we handle the repercussions of those decisions. That is some pretty heavy stuff for any movie to take on and I appreciate any attempt to do such subject matter justice but A Little Help could have used some itself in this case. It doesn't quite sink in until about half way through the movie that something feels a little off about everything. The narrative seems to be heading in a few different directions and none of them are ever made good on.

Take the death of Laura's husband for instance. His death was caused by a rare and hard to find heart condition that goes unseen by a doctor after he has what appeared to be a heart attack. This condition is only brought on by an accelerated heart beat which is caused by exercise or other forms of excitement such as sexual activities. Laura and him haven't had sex in a couple months but he says he had an incident a week prior during a "meeting" at work. Well when he dies that very same night from Laura performing a sexual act on him it brings up a couple issues. Laura immediately thinks he was cheating on her and while she is busy trying to work through that and the death of her husband both her sister Kathy (Brooke Smith) and mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) force Laura into a malpractice lawsuit against the doctor that gave him a clean bill of health.

Laura tries to talk to her son who wants nothing to do with her.

That situation alone would be enough take up an entire movie but the filmmakers felt it necessary to pile on the problems for Laura. On top of that she must deal with an estranged son who has some deep seeded issues and resentment towards her. He dislikes her drinking and smoking which makes sense but he also just plain outright hates her which is only doubled after his father dies. Then we have Laura trying to rectify her relationship with her son by sending him to a private school where he will hopefully find some much needed structure in his life. That of course brings up other issues when for some reason he tells everyone at the school that his father was a fireman who died at ground zero on 9/11 (the film takes place in late 2001 when people were still very emotional about the incident). Now Laura must lie for her son or risk losing any sort of connection with him by also pretending that her husband was a fireman who died on 9/11.

As if that isn't enough later on other things come up such as Laura's horrible single life where she is trying date again, a revelation from her brother in law that leaves her doubting her life and the choices she has made up to this point and how to deal with her neighbor's irritating dog that just won't stop barking. I understand that all these problems being layered on top of Laura's life is supposed to be too much, too much for her or anyone to handle. There is supposed to be a lethargic moment when things start to go her way, when we the audience start to sense a shift that things are finally starting to work out because Laura is taking charge of her life. But that never happens, the court case, the cheating dead husband, the brother in law, the manipulative sister and mother, the malcontent son, the barking dog, the annoying parrot at work, he single life and all the lies she has constructed concerning her dead husband dying on 9/11 all get resolved in the most absurdly simple ways imaginable.

Dennis conjures up the story of how his father died.

As the problems for Laura stacked up I started thinking to myself that there was no way all these issues would be resolved in a satisfying manner by the end and I was mostly right unfortunately. I can't say that none of them got the attention they deserved but when the film ends you will probably find the whole experience unfulfilling for the most part. Now if the only issues I had were with how the film came to a conclusion then I might give it more of a recommendation. Problem is that there are other issues at work here the help make it an even more trying experience than it should have been. In probably one of the worst casting decisions I have seen in a while the actor that plays Laura's brother in law is a complete puzzle to me.

I don't think he is a poor actor per say but more like he was a poor choice for this role, he isn't the only victim of bad casting though which I will get to in a second. I might be wrong here but I got the strange feeling that we were supposed to identify with Laura when he confesses his true feelings to her. She is taken aback by the confession but she also agrees with him in the fact that maybe she should have married him a couple decades back instead of her now deceased husband. The problem I have with the actor is that he comes off as way more creepy than he should. I wouldn't be making such a big deal of this if this weren't such a big plot element in the movie by the way. But when he stares at Laura and just in the way he delivers his lines to her I couldn't shake the feeling that this guy was up to no good. Laura likes him though and we the audience in turn are supposed to like him as well regardless of the creep factor. Their scene together at the empty hockey rink was so uncomfortable that I just wanted Laura to run away. When you have someone tell you that they married your sister so that they could get closer to you then that isn't love, that is a clear cut case of stalking. Alarms should be going off at the point.

See!...doesn't he just look freakin creepy!

That creepy aspect aside I also had a big issue with the casting of Jenna Fischer in this part. Now I know that may sound weird considering my opening statement but I just don't think she was a good fit for this part. Jenna Fischer is such a likable presence on screen that the last thing you want to do is dislike her. I am not saying that any actor shouldn't try to break out of their mold and try something different but here it just felt wrong. Her character is such a dysfunctional adult that makes so many bad choices but Jenna the person has such a warmth and glowing personality to her that I felt like I should hate myself for liking her. Perhaps that was on purpose though considering how the film brings up numerous times that her character has gotten by in life mainly by her good looks...or maybe I am just giving the filmmakers too much credit. Maybe if her character had some sort of redemption by the end of the film it would make it all go down a little easier but other than her just putting a stop to everything (which I guess is supposed to be her moment of glory) she is the same person she was at the beginning of the movie.

With that being said though I thought Jenna's performance was the one bright spot in the entire film. Despite her being a slight mismatch for the role I thought she did an amazing job here. Just about every single scene between her and her son was stressful to the point of wanting to slap either one of them. They have constant arguments throughout the film that get more intense as it all plays out and Laura's ferocity towards her son actually caught me off guard more than once. There is one scene in particular where her son tries to either help his mom or something (his actions make very little sense) by taking care of the barking dog next door and when he does she flips out and in turn he sends a message to her over the computer saying he hates her over and over again which leads into a startling moment with her barging into his room and basically talking shit on the kid. That key moment there encompasses a lot of my issues with the film and also what I liked about it. I hated seeing Jenna act like such a horrible person yet I felt relieved for her because her son is such a douche bag that I felt like he had it coming. If there is one thing to take away from this movie it is that Jenna
Fischer has the acting chops to be the lead in a feature film.

These scene was crazy, it's not too often you hear a mom tell her kid that he sucks.

In the end though this film didn't need to be as complicated as it was and it needed to give the character of Laura an arc that reflected some sort of growth. I often found myself getting mixed signals where the film wanted me to like and sympathize with Laura and other times hate her. A person doesn't need to be so weighed downed with excessive amounts of emotional baggage for the audience to identify with them. Any one of the issues brought up could have been enough to fill an entire film on their own. And the way they are all resolved does each and every one of said issues a great disservice while also making the whole film feel completely unnecessary. The only people I could recommend this film to are unfortunately the same people that will most likely dislike it for the same reasons I do. If you are a fan of Jenna Fischer and want to see how she does in a leading role then this is without a doubt a solid rental at best but be warned because while she does a fantastic job in the role she is also grossly miscast in it. Everyone else out there would be wise to...


AVOID IT


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