Oh, lying, what a mess you make of things! In A Little Help, everyone’s deceiving someone—spouses, kids, classmates, themselves—and falling further and further into unhappiness as a result. At the center of this miserable, 2002-set miasma is dentist Laura (Jenna Fischer), whose marriage to workaholic Bob (Chris O’Donnell) is rife with tensions born from his dissatisfaction with her boozing and physical shape, and from her suspicions that he’s cheating. Such dishonesty extends to Bob’s unfulfilled promises to overweight son Dennis (Daniel Yelsky) that they’ll spend more time together, and to Laura’s sister, Kathy (Brooke Smith), whose own husband, Paul (Rob Benedict), lies to his wife about his son’s musical-career aspirations, which he supports, and about his own feelings, which since middle school have been secretly directed toward Laura. It’s a veritable avalanche of middle-class handwringing about discontent and duplicity that continues when Bob suddenly drops dead from arrhythmia and Laura is compelled to cover up the truth in a medical-malpractice suit she doesn’t really want to begin. At the same time, Dennis tries to elicit sympathy from his school compatriots by claiming—and forcing his mom to corroborate—that his father was actually a fireman who died on 9/11.
Michael J. Weithorn’s film apparently intends to be a dramedy, but with next to no humor materializing, his story quickly bogs down into earnest indie bathos, with the generally bright and sharp-witted Fischer glumly slogging through one sorrowful or maddening scenario after another. Just as Bob slams Laura for becoming out of shape even though she looks great, Laura’s sad predicaments are posited as “inevitable”—and the byproduct of her being, according to her mother (Lesley Ann Warren), a “spoiled self-indulgent teenager”—even though they come across as rickety contrivances. Phoniness so pervades the action that Fischer never seems even remotely related to her son, mother, or sister; rather, like everything else, their relationships feel like put-ons.
Weithorn’s direction underlines its understatement via self-consciously patient camerawork and a doleful score, all in order to further the mournful mood. Furthermore, an ending that favors restrained ambiguity over happily-ever-after cheer seems less sobering than merely another affectation designed to lend weight to a work defined by synthetic melodrama and creaky conventions, the most flagrant of which is ultimately the recurring use of cornball Jakob Dylan songs that prove as leaden as the film’s drearily unamusing World Trade Center-centric jokiness.