Steve Carell isn’t the only star of TV’s The Office with a movie out this week. Jenna Fischer charmed millions of viewers portraying the sweetly downtrodden receptionist on that show, but she’s never come close to having the spotlight to herself in a movie. Instead, this gorgeous and funny performer has been relegated to thankless second-fiddle film roles behind Will Ferrell (Blades of Glory), John C. Reilly (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), and Owen Wilson (Hall Pass). The tiny indie drama A Little Help finally allows her the starring role, and Fischer’s fans will be gratified to know that she is terrific in it. The movie itself, not so much.
She portrays Laura, a Long Island dental hygienist and mother whose toxic marriage to a real estate agent (Chris O’Donnell) ends when he suddenly drops dead from a heart attack. Already crumbling emotionally and letting herself go physically before her husband’s death, Laura passively lets her controlling mom and sister (Lesley Ann Warren and Brooke Smith) dictate her major life decisions while she adjusts to widowhood by freely indulging her smoking habit and drinking too much. Meanwhile, her young son (Daniel Yelsky) acts out by lying to the other kids at his new school, telling them that his dad was a fireman who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (The film takes place during the fall of 2002.)
The success of Bridesmaids has sparked a great deal of chatter about movies with female protagonists and how women’s lives are much more interesting than they’re generally allowed to be in mainstream romantic comedies and action thrillers. This indie film departs from convention in the same way. A longtime TV writer making his film-directing debut, Michael J. Weithorn allows us to see Laura’s life in all its messiness. Laura practically has to be dragged into filing a malpractice lawsuit against her husband’s doctor until her lawyer (Kim Coates) points out that she’ll be in dire financial straits without the money. No wonder Laura’s mom calls her a “spoiled teenager.”
This is great as far as it goes. The problem is that the story is supposed to turn on Laura finally taking control of her own life. To that end, there’s a quiet scene with Laura receiving some guidance from her retired sportswriter dad (Ron Leibman) who was always too busy to spend much time with his daughters. It’s nice to have, but we still need more than that or a scene in which Laura races off to rescue her soon-to-be-exposed son from a birthday party. This insubstantial film is several levels below similar recent fare like Bridesmaids, Sunshine Cleaning, or the underappreciated Come Early Morning.
Good thing it has Fischer, who seems liberated from the need to be likable at all times. Bristling with discontent looks good on her, and she has a great childish reaction when her son tells her that she sucks via text message. A Little Help demonstrates that this actress is capable of handling difficult material and using her comic skills in a dramatic context. Shame that the rest of the film can’t rise to her level.
A Little Help
Starring Jenna Fischer and Rob Benedict. Written and directed by Michael J. Weithorn. Rated R.