South Park once celebrated that, by their calculation, it took 22.3 years for AIDS to finally be funny. With the theatrical release of A Little Help, the feature film debut of King of Queens creator Michael J. Weithron, it’s now taken 9.8 years for 9/11 to be ... well, not funny, but at least employed as a plot point in a farcical dramedy. It’s bad enough when lowly dental hygienist Laura (Jenna Fischer) inadvertently causes a fatal heart attack in her philandering husband (Chris O’Donnell) while administering a B.J. Then her young son makes her life harder by spreading a lie that his father died while rescuing people on 9/11.
Problem is, people still are largely reluctant to crack wise about the WTC attacks—witness the willing indifference that greeted Chris Morris’ brilliant terrorist comedy Four Lions last year—which may be one reason why Weithern never fully commits to creating a farce. His plot may be fueled by wacky misunderstandings and darkly comic plot turns. But he also wants to create a film steeped in realism—a farce as it would play out in real life, which is to say at a slow speed, fueled by real problems for real-seeming people, and one that never takes its farcical elements too seriously, as thought would be un-real.
His intentions are pure: Fischer’s character has serious economical concerns following her husband’s death, notably an essentially bogus malpractice suit. She deals with them while transparently not wanting to deal with them, just as people would in real life. But in attempting to mix tones and genres, A Little Help merely succeeds in feeling schizophrenic—never funny enough to qualify as a comedy, never serious enough to go deeper.
The result is a relentlessly glum movie that fails to satisfy neither comedic nor dramatic needs. Whenever it threatens to get funny, it quickly backpedals into drama; whenever it gets too serious (and depressing), it falls back on (attempted) comedy. And while Fischer does fine work, her character is one-note gloomy, while the characters around her are even thinner, most of them heartless family members who harass her following her husband’s funeral. Besides, no film that employs 9/11 as a comic device should coat the soundtrack in Jakob Dylan songs.