Raising Helen

June, 2004, Comedy

Directed by:Garry Marshall

Starring:Kate Hudson, Hayden Panettiere, John Corbett, and Felicity Huffman

In the past twenty years or so, Gerry Marshall, (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) has become a poor man's Frank Capra, grinding out fluffy, inoffensive romantic comedies ever since making the leap from directing T.V. series, (Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy) to the big screen. 1984's promising The Flamingo Kid had some sharp edges buried inside its examination of an impressionable Long Island kid's introduction to country club life in the '50's; his subsequent work has rarely risen to that level of accomplishment. In Raising Helen, the director buries a challenging topic inside this Cracker Jack-box of a movie, but his wary, inconclusive handling of it says more about what the producers think of our society's inability to deal honestly with hard questions in main-stream films than it does the issue itself, making this one interesting only as an exploration of commercial/directorial shrewdness.

Kate Hudson, who made such a terrific impression in Almost Famous--and who's done nothing worthwhile in the 6 films she's made since--plays Helen, a happily unmarried but accomplished career woman who's significantly contributing to the success of her boss's modeling agency. She's also the carefree aunt of her two sisters' children, the oldest of which, 16-year old Audrey, (Hayden Panettiere) worships Helen because the latter treats Audrey as a grownup. But when the teenager's Mom and Dad die in an auto accident, Helen finds herself named as guardian in a will that Helen's remaining sister Jenny, (Joan Cusack) angrily disputes because she's convinced that Helen isn't capable of managing her own affairs much less those of three suddenly orphaned youngsters.

Predictably, the plot then follows Helen through all the standard devices used in this type of film; parenting takes up too much of Helen's time, so she loses her job, has to leave Manhattan for a bigger but rather ratty apartment in Queens, and is reduced to lying about her religious affiliation in order to gain admittance for her two nieces and nephew in a Lutheran parochial school that's conveniently located in her new neighborhood. That just happens to be run by Pastor Dan, (John Corbett) a strapping stud of a minister who takes an instant fancy to Helen's perky personality, not to mention her megawatt smile and size two wardrobe. Helen's new neighbors help her learn the rudiments of raising a family and even find her a downscale job so she can precariously balance her new responsibilities with a paycheck 

But Helen quickly discovers that affection for her new family isn't enough; the need for rules rears its ugly head. Helen's initially baffled by this unexpected challenge and then reluctant to trade her old camaraderie for the role of disciplinarian, especially in her relationship with Audrey, who's anxious to play the adult role Helen formerly assigned her. Anal-retentive Aunt Jenny on the other hand, has both the appetite and skill sets to handle Audrey's rebelliousness, leaving Helen to wonder whether her decision to assume responsibility for the kids was the right thing to do for all concerned…

When Helen and Jenny debate the merits and values of permissive vs. traditional parenting styles, "Raising Helen" comes fitfully alive because Marshall has the good sense to present the appealing aspects of each with honest persuasiveness.  But the script requires Joan Cusack's Jenny to demand compliance with her rules simply because she says so, not because they have any intrinsic merit, which relegates her character to the status of nagging domestic tyrant instead of insightful guide. Even the budding, (if improbable) romance between the minister and Helen is devoid of any discussion of ethical or spiritual norms; Helen's blithe lack of interest in any religious tradition doesn't prevent Pastor Dan from developing a serious case of the hots for her, and the self-absorbed world of professional modeling is presented as morally equivalent to her new role as a hard working, blue-collar mom. By the film's end, Helen has learned to bark edicts at the kids with Jenny's forcefulness while maintaining her own sunny disposition, which is apparently all the kids need to grow up to be happy and well adjusted adults. In doing so, "Raising Helen" suggests that the hard challenges in life can be successfully met with a positive attitude and a set of norms whose validity requires no thoughtful substantiation. Guilt-free moral ambiguity never looked so easy--or so bland.

Kate Hudson remains a charming screen presence, but she needs roles in which her character actually has something to say rather than yet another opportunity to say it sweetly. Joan Cusack's quirky charms are lost on Jenny; the script turns this always-appealing actress's performance into caricature. John Corbett's ability to convey basic male decency, (put to such effective use as the groom in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and as one of the hunks in Sex and the City) is lost here; his open-faced geniality doesn't emerge as appealing sweetness-- it congeals into treacle and the actor knows it. He turns in a clumsy, constipated performance, as uncomfortable with his clerical collar as he is with the appallingly self-conscious lines he's required to utter, the worst of which may be the year's crowning achievement in truly awful dialogue: "I'm a sexy man of God--and I know it." 

Implausibility isn't a liability in Hollywood romantic comedies, but vacuous characters are; this tepid attempt at a light-hearted, comedic look at the problems of working moms and the values they utilize to raise their families fails from its improbable beginning to its cloyingly saccharine end.   

 

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