Raising Helen (2004) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for themes and language
Running time: 119 min.
Cast: Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack, Helen Mirren, Hector Elizondo, Hayden Panettiere, Spencer Breslin, Abigail Breslin,
Cameo: Felicity Huffman, Paris Hilton, Alan Thicke, Larry Miller
Director: Garry Marshall
Screenplay: Jack Amiel, Michael Begler
Helen Harris (Hudson, Le Divorce) is a 20-something up-and-comer in the fashion industry, putting it all on the line for her career while still able to partake of the Manhattan party atmosphere she knows inside and out. Her life takes an unexpected turn when her sister and brother-in-law suffer a fatal accident, leaving custody of their three children up in the air. All signs point to super-mom sibling Jenny (Cusack, School of Rock) getting the kids, but the will specifically states that Helen be the one, and so her carefree lifestyle she ravishes so much falls into disarray. Not able to afford three kids and stay in her neighborhood, Helen must barely scrape by, putting the kids into a local Lutheran school led by the hunky Pastor Dan (Corbett, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), whose attraction to Helen is equally matched with his disapproval of her life choices. Something's got to give in Helen's life for her to find happiness.
Chick flick guru Garry Marshall (Runaway Bride, Pretty Woman) continues his descent into substandard fare with Raising Helen, which has about 90 minutes of "cute" scenes padding about 20+ minutes of story. Cute kids, cute pets, cute furniture, cute co-workers, cute friends, and cute little scenes of everyone acting just so adorably. With several montages set to a cute song on the soundtrack, it's enough to give lovers of Hallmark cards and cheesy commercials a feeling of euphoria, perhaps even an afterglow once it is over. As such, I call these sorts of films "porn for women" (before you write, I don't mean all women), as more effort is spent trying to excite the sensory titillation buttons for easy audience reaction than it does in trying to grab our attention with honest characters in an interesting plot. At about 90 minutes, these sorts of films might merit a pass, but at two hours, it's ridiculous how much excess there is in a story that takes so little time to relate.
You can see where the film is going early on, as parenting is always seen as the more honorable option than living the single life. You wouldn't have a movie if Helen decides she isn't ready to be a parent, and the gags all develop around the ineptitude of seeing a woman completely clueless on child-rearing do and say all of the wrong things. This sort of thing might beg to be a sitcom if not for the fact that it has been done to death, though usually it's a man trying to play mother to get laughs (see Mr. Mom, Big Daddy, Jersey Girl to name but a few). Throw in progressively serious, mushy moments near the end, especially as Helen finds the "father" figure to anchor her, and you have a ready-made happy ending. Some scenes lack any comedic hook at all, and you can sense the desperation not to get too dramatic as Helen is seen injuring herself in practically every scene in bits of not-terribly-funny slapstick.
Hudson might be perky and cute, but doesn't really lend much complexity to her roles to make us believe she could be anything else. Corbett isn't much more than a placeholder hunk, offering only geniality and a smile to his drab characterization. Cusack's character comes off as pushy and straight-laced to a fault, which doesn't suit the off-center actress's style well, as one can easily see why the kids parents wouldn't want to subject them to a life under such a know-it-all disciplinarian. On the bright idle, Marshall-favorite Hector Elizondo (Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, Entropy) scores with a funny portrayal of an honest used car dealer. Though his role is yet another superfluous touch crafted to dredge up a few more gems of cuteness, you may find yourself wishing the cameras will follow him around for the duration of the film rather than have to go back to the pedestrian story involving the party girl becoming a mom.
On that note, I suppose the lesson to be learned here is that a woman doesn't really grow up unless she learns how to be a good parent, or find a good man. Some might agree with this, while other may think this is the opposite of how it should be, as one might want to grow up first before starting a relationship or family. Either way, regardless of how you feel about questionably overbearing idealism, without many genuinely funny moments, interesting developments, or depth in emotion, Raising Helen's purpose is merely to hold you in mild, idle attention by stimulating those prone to fawn over such things will point and smile whenever something adorable passes in front of the screen -- and that's pretty damned often. For those of you offended by my review, take a look at the picture to the right and feel good again. Yay!
©2008 Vince Leo