Review: ‘A Little Help’

1. If Long Island were a city to itself, rather than a tight collection of disparate enclaves, it would be the second largest city in the country. (It has more people than Ireland, Denmark and Libya.) That's a little crazy, right? For a "city" so large, you would think it would litter our cultural landscape, live large in the popular consciousness, particularly because of its proximity to New York City. But it doesn't. You have "The Great Gatsby," which focused on one tiny wealthy WASP section whose residents bear no resemblance to anyone else who lives in Long Island (or Earth), and then various references in Woody Allen movies, which make it sound like one giant beach waterfront and ongoing cocktail party. But most of Long Island is blue-collar, working-class, Real America: Most of Long Island might as well be Cleveland. This Long Island is far more prevalent on television than it is in the movies, because television has always been better at portraying the working class than movies have; we accept 10 extra pounds or so on our protagonists more on TV than in the theaters.

2. "A Little Help" takes place in Port Washington, Long Island, and, to its credit, it's not about Rob Roy-drinking men named Brantforth Covington-Fordham or Manhattanites choosing romantic couplings while playing beach volleyball. It is written and directed by Michael J. Weithorn, who is best known for creating "The King of Queens," which was a better show than you probably think it is, particularly if you just saw "Zookeeper." What that show did well was present a likable, believable lower-middle-class family with real jobs, real concerns and real consequences. (Well, all right, Sitcom Real.) Which is why it's a surprise that "A Little Help" is such a misguided dud. It remembers to set its story in a tangible, breathing place, but it forgets to provide the story.

3. Jenna Fisher plays Laura, a thirtysomething mother who is put upon in every aspect of her life. Her husband is cheating on her, her good-hearted son dislikes her intrusiveness, her parents think she's a screwup and her job doesn't give her enough hours to get by. The dramatic wrench thrown into this mess? Her husband (played by Chris O'Donnell, that walking empty shrug of a human) drops dead of a heart attack, turning Laura into ... well, actually, she sorta stays the same put-upon sad sack she was beforehand. Her mother hates her, her sister hates her, her lawyer hates her and her kid hates her, which is strange, because Laura (as played by Fisher) is so likable and so obviously more pleasant than everyone else in the film, you wonder if she secretly tortures animals when the camera isn't on her. Laura is the only person in this film who isn't a monster, a shorthand that might work in a sitcom but is just cartoonish in a feature film. Do you think it's believable that an entire family to sit down a grieving widow at the funeral for her husband (who died suddenly and unexpectedly) and scream at her for being irresponsible? "A Little Help" does.

4. There's actually one other character in "A Little Help" who isn't bats--t insane, Laura's brother-in-law, so this movie, lacking anyone else for any other character to talk to, turns him into a romantic lead, entirely inappropriately. (Ladies, if a man ever tells you, "I just married your sister to get closer to you," RUN LIKE HELL.) Everyone else is awful. And for a guy who loves Long Island, Weithorn does his homeland few favors, making the whole community look dingy, worn-down and dreary. I thought he liked this place? The movie is more interested in being a drama about this poor woman than being a comedy, but the drama has no real depth or narrative progression (this is the type of movie in which when a character needs to feel shame, Weithorn directs his extras to all stare at the character and shake their heads and/or wag their finger), and it's also not particularly funny. At least "The King of Queens" was funny. Well, occasionally.

5. Not to be unkind, but I'm not sure Weithorn has much future as a film director; his sensibility is more ideally suited to the small screen. (A very small one.) His film sort of just wanders around with no momentum, and he has a tendency to not quite understand basic film conventions. My favorite of his moves is The Ed Burns Lyrical Mise En Scene (named after its most common offender), in which a film explains the emotional state of a character by showing a montage set to a song in which the lyrics explain precisely how they're feeling. (If a character is sad, the song is about being sad and will likely feature a lyric that's roughly, "This is a sad, saaaaad time.") "A Little Help" is a misguided dopey little vanity project that's harmless, but inert. I think Fischer, the film's lone bright spot, could have a charming, warm romantic lead future in movies, if she picks the right ones. This ain't it.

Grade: C-