There is this saving grace to Michael J. Weithorn’s "A Little Help," a frequently awkward mixture of comedy and melodrama: While the debut feature from the sitcom veteran ("The King of Queens," "Family Ties") offers little we haven’t seen before in its depiction of quiet lives of suburban desperation revolving around a Long Island dental hygienist, it does possess the appealing, low-key charm of its star, Jenna Fischer of TV’s "The Office." This certainly makes the movie palatable, even if its box-office prospects seem minimal.
Set in 2002, the film depicts the travails of hard-drinking Laura (Fischer), whose underlying misery is signaled early on when she suddenly bursts into tears while discussing flossing with a patient. It turns out that her marriage to her handsome real estate agent husband Bob (Chris O’Donnell) is severely strained, as he neglects both his wife and his disaffected 12-year-old son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) in favor of endless late-night “meetings” that just happen to include his young female assistant.
The contrived plot is set in motion when Bob dies suddenly of a heart ailment that was misdiagnosed when he withheld incriminating information from a doctor. At the urging of her family and an aggressive litigator (Kim Coates), Laura instigates a lawsuit that requires her to be similarly deceptive.
The film’s theme of lives being undone by deception is hammered home too bluntly. Every character, it seems, harbors secrets or engages in tall tales. Dennis, for example, attempts to fit in at his new school by claiming that his father died in the 9/11 attack. Even Laura’s father (Ron Leibman), a retired sportswriter, boasts that he gave Muhammad Ali the nickname of “The Greatest.”
The filmmaker’s sitcom roots reveal themselves in the broadness of many of the supporting characters, especially Laura’s overbearing mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and perpetually angry sister (Brooke Smith). The only scenes that register with moving subtlety are the ones between Laura and her brother-in-law (beautifully played by Rob Benedict) who has been secretly in love with her since high school.
Ultimately, the film is best appreciated as a welcome big-screen starring vehicle for Fischer, who expertly navigates the comedic and dramatic demands of a role that keeps her onscreen for virtually the entire running time. She displays such a natural sexiness that you can’t help but laugh when O’Donnell’s character admonishes her for not taking care of herself. And the actress demonstrates an emotional range that indicates she’s more than ready to go beyond her "Office" duties.