Need a hand? Judge Clark Douglas is here to provide a little help. Emphasis on "little."
Ever have one of those lives?
"Why didn't you stick up for me?"
Facts of the Case
The year is 2002 and the place is Long Island. In recent times, Laura's (Jenna Fischer, The Office) life has been pretty frustrating. Her relationship with her husband Bob (Chris O'Donnell, Batman Forever) has been falling apart, her mother (Lesley Ann Warren, Secretary) and sister (Brooke Smith, The Silence of the Lambs) have been nagging her constantly and her 11-year-old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky, That's What I Am) has decided that he thinks his father is the far superior parent. Things grow even messier when Bob suddenly passes away, the sadness of which pales in comparison to the sheer stressfulness of the fallout. Soon, Laura finds herself forced to make a series of challenging, uncomfortable decisions.
The concerns people have about Laura are legitimate: she drinks a little too much (not enough to make her a helpless alcoholic, but enough to hinder her from being a great mother), she's not particularly good at raising her son and she is far too disorganized when it comes to handling important elements of her personal life. Even so, we generally end up siding with Laura when she gets into an argument with one of her family members, partially because we recognize that she's fundamentally a good person and partially because her family members act like such jerks during these confrontations.
Laura is essentially a well-intentioned person who simply doesn't know how to be a mother. When other people look at Bob (who is better-looking, has better social manners, makes considerably more money and drives a nicer car), they see a man who is too good for Laura. Still, Laura's misguided efforts to parent are a considerable improvement over Bob's complete lack of effort (he's too busy engaging in an affair with a co-worker). When Bob passes away, Laura's family members are outraged that Laura isn't demonstrating an appropriately excessive amount of grief. Her bedraggled scowls during these scenes are priceless.
Most of the film's best scenes are those in which Laura is attempting (often unsuccessfully) to figure out how to navigate her way through a conversation. She picks Dennis up from camp and asks him how things went. He bluntly tells her that he, "saw a girl's tit." In this situation, many parents would cough uncomfortably, or tell their kid not to use the word "tit" or perhaps use the moment as an opportunity segue into a gentle conversation about sexuality. Laura decides to try to use this as a bonding moment: "Really? How was it?" she gushes. At another point, Dennis makes one of those common-yet-hurtful childish declarations: "You suck, mom!" "No, YOU suck!" Laura shoots back. These scenes find a nice balance between caustic humor and genuine empathy, as does a scene in which she begrudgingly agrees to allow her son to maintain an unfortunate lie (Dennis told his classmates that Bob was a fireman who died on 9/11; Bob was actually a real estate agent who died due to heart complications).
A Little Help is perhaps a little clumsy in its plotting, as it does some unnecessarily heavy foreshadowing and makes too many of its plot developments feel like contrivances. I'm not a big fan of the obvious plot arc involving Laura's nephew (who has a passion for music, but is hindered from embracing it by his overbearing mother), nor of the way Dennis' ill-advised 9/11 lie eventually plays out. There are times when the movie seems to embrace cutesy gags (the talking parrot routine comes to mind) rather than the far more successful brand of organic humor it employs elsewhere. Additionally, the continuous employment of mellow Jakob Dylan tunes eventually becomes a little tiresome. Under many circumstances, these problems would be sufficient to sink a film, but it's such a pleasure to spend time with Laura.
Those who primarily know Fischer from her work on The Office may be pleasantly surprised by her turn in this film, as she demonstrates remarkable range and nuance. I suspect she has some terrific roles waiting for her whenever her popular NBC sitcom comes to an end. She essays Laura as a woman who is friendly and sweet-natured by default, but who is constantly overwhelmed and transformed into a grouch by the other people in her life. The supporting players turn in respectable work, but the other noteworthy performance comes from Kim Coates (Sons of Anarchy) as the cutthroat lawyer who finds himself in the unlikely position of having to coax Laura into filing a dirty but winnable medical malpractice lawsuit and accepting an enormous settlement. Laura, bless her, retains the old-fashioned belief that you shouldn't sue someone unless you actually think they've done something wrong.
A Little Help (Blu-ray) strolls onto hi-def sporting a very attractive 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. As you might expect, this is a movie which doesn't rely too heavily on awe-inspiring visuals or eye-catching camera angles, but it looks good for what it is. The level of detail is superb throughout, and the filmmakers admittedly do a good job of capturing a sense of place. Flesh tones are warm and natural while blacks are rich and inky. Contrast levels are top-notch, as well. Likewise, the audio track is dominated by dialogue and predictably gentle music (Dion is about as rowdy as this track gets), but it gets the job done. The conversations are clear and well-captured, and the sound design is nuanced enough for this film's purposes (though it's a bit front-heavy). Supplements are limited to brief interviews with the cast, a Jakob Dylan music video, a trailer and a TV spot.
My feelings about A Little Help are basically in line with my feelings about Laura: I like them both, despite the fact that they each have a considerable supply of obvious flaws. It's a bit slight, but this film works well as a showcase of Fischer's talent.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.