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A LITTLE HELP (2011) (***)

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This dramedy frustrated and delighted me in equal measure. Writer/director Michael J. Weithorn (THE KING OF QUEENS) proves himself an observant chronicler of human nature and a sitcom gag craftsman. He develops rich comedic scenarios and weaves them together, but leaves us hanging at times. All of it is held together by the wonderful performance of THE OFFICE's Jenna Fischer.

Fischer plays Laura, a dental hygienist, who suspects that her husband Bob (Chris O'Donnell, BATMAN & ROBIN) is cheating on her. He denies it, which finds a way of costing him his life. Now Laura, who was drinking a bit too much before becoming a widow, is left to care for her son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky), who has a way with coming up with massive lies to win friends.

Laura's mother Joan (Lesley Ann Warren, VICTOR/VICTORIA) and her sister Katie (Brooke Smith, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) sit her down to discuss her financial situation. Laura doesn't want to talk about it, but they keep harping on it and demand that she see Mel Kaminsky (Kim Coates, BLACK HAWK DOWN), a malpractice lawyer who will sue the hospital. Joan has nothing ever good to say about Laura and Katie resents being called the organized sister instead of the pretty one. Laura's father Warren (Ron Leibman, NORMA RAE) is no help, because he's too busy reminiscing about his days as a top sports reporter.

Laura isn't the best mom, but she does her best. She drinks to just get through her day. Her husband says she's let her self go, but if Fischer is "let go" than God help us what hot is. She is short and sometimes mean when dealing with her son. A good example is not what she is setting for him. So she's not one to really complain when he tells is new classmates that his dad was a firefighter who died saving people during 9/11.

Her brother-in-law Paul (Rob Benedict, STATE OF PLAY), however, is a good parent and Laura recognizes it. He sees that his son Kyle (Zach Page, AUGUST RUSH) has real talent at playing guitar. He tries to encourage him, but his wife undermines it, because she sees no real future in music and wants her son to focus on getting better grades. Paul deals with his oppressive wife with humor, but it usually just makes her more agitated. In high school, he had a crush on Laura and started dating Katie just to be closer to Laura.

Laura's life is certainly spinning out of control. Each misstep or lie that she engages in only sets her up for bigger failure. The problem is that all the pieces build and come to a head right before the credits close. I wanted more. In many ways, Laura is at her lowest point when the film ends, but we see her on her way to a better life. But I wanted to see her work her way back. I felt like I was watching the two-hour pilot to a new TV series.

When it's watching the way families interact for better or worse, the film is a refreshing look at imperfection. The film gets a little lost in sitcom-like scenarios to pump up the humor, because it feels like it's from another movie and distracts. A perfect example is when Laura's father keeps the bathroom door open when the family is discussing Laura's future. He wants to keep in the conversation. It's funny, but out of place.

Though it's flawed like its characters, A LITTLE HELP is still always entertaining. Fischer makes Laura relatable. We understand why she tells little lies, because she just wants one moment when someone isn't on her case. We understand why she loses her temper when her son makes her the bad cop when her husband is off playing bad cop with someone else. We understand when she wants a little help from anyone who will give it to her even if it's only for a fleeting moment and could cause her even more problems as a result.

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Rick DeMott
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