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Movie Review

A Little Help

Fischer and ‘A Little Help’ get no help from ‘King of Queens’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / July 29, 2011

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It’s not that Jenna Fischer is miscast in “A Little Help.’’ It’s that she’s mis-everything else: misused, misdirected, misanthropic. Under other circumstances, she could play a stressed-out, freshly widowed dental hygienist with little objection from me. Under these circumstances, I’d rather be anywhere else. She’s unlike the passive women she usually plays, such as Pam on “The Office.’’ And yet there’s no pleasure in watching Fischer scream at, say, Chris O’Donnell or a barking dog or the actor who plays her 11-year-old-son, since she’s screaming with little wit or emotional cause.

The movie is a tedious collection of arguments: between the hygienist, Laura, and her soon-to-be-late husband (O’Donnell), between her overbearing sister (Brooke Smith) and their brittle mother (Lesley Ann Warren). The overbearing sister even manages to berate her ropy twin teens and their feckless stoner dad (Rob Benedict). I don’t believe that Warren and Ron Leibman, who plays her husband, could produce both Fischer and Smith, who look neither like each other nor like the actors playing their parents. And you don’t understand how a woman with a personality as strong as Smith’s stays married to man with a personality as childish as Benedict’s without the threat at least of jail.

Michael J. Weithorn, who wrote and directed this movie, has an extensive background in television sitcommery. “The King of Queens’’ was his most recent show, and its weird appeal was watching Leah Remini and Jerry Stiller take turns breathing fire on Kevin James, who remained singed for 162 episodes as well as during his current run as a movie schlub. That same abrasive strategy grates in a movie that is straining for matters less mundane than using too much tanning lotion or whether to buy a new car. The screaming should hurt.

One such mundane matter is the mess Laura winds up in after her son (Daniel Yelsky) tells people that his father rescued people at the World Trade Center. Yes, just when you think you could not like the movie less, you’re dropped in the dunk tank of national tragedy. In any case, the son is lying. His father worked in real estate, but the boy begs his mother not to give the truth away, and so she participates in a malpractice suit that accuses a doctor of negligently killing a hero. Either Weithorn has never seen a Preston Sturges or Alexander Payne comedy or he didn’t know how to make one of his own. The farce at the center of this movie just sits there like a car with the keys in the ignition. Instead, he piles on self-congratulatory digressions. One involves a radio appearance by the singer Dion. The other is just a cutaway to a scene from “The King of Queens.’’ But that’s clarifying. Bad looks a lot better when you’re standing in worse.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

A LITTLE HELP Written and directed by: Michael J. Weithorn

Starring: Jenna Fischer, Brooke Smith, Lesley Ann Warren, Rob Benedict, Daniel Yelsky, and Chris O’ Donnell

At: Boston Common

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: R (language, some sexual content, and scenes of marijuana use)

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