Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Either Savant thought he was getting something else or he asked for this title on
a recommendation, but either way there's not much of a movie here for anyone but a confirmed
Kate Hudson fan - which is not a bad thing to be. Raising Helen deals with an interesting enough subject,
the pitfalls of single motherhood - but barely gets its feet wet. Millions of Americans are
trying to raise kids under circumstances far more problematical than this, and if they don't
resent the way the movie trivializes and sanitizes their situation, they should. Surprisingly,
it's too much for the adorable Ms. Hudson as well. You can tell because her only recourse to
every maddening incident that comes along is to flash a winning smile.
Fashion-industry rising star Helen Harris (Kate Hudson) is devastated by the
death of a sister and her husband, orphaning their three children. Helen has another sister,
Jenny (Joan Cusack), a 'supermom' type who raised Helen as well and is resentful of the younger Helen's relatively
carefree lifestyle in Manhattan. So it comes as a big surprise to both of them when the three
children are put in Helen's care. She moves to Queens and tries to adjust, but the scheduling
conflicts force Helen's boss (Helen Mirren) to let her go. All three kids have trouble adjusting
to the deaths of their parents. The oldest is a boy-crazy teenager (Hayden Panettiere) who
takes it for granted that her new mom will approve of all kinds of risky shenanigans. Helen gets
advice and companionship from Lutheran Pastor Dan Parker (John Corbett) but is shocked when the
man of the cloth tries to date her as well.
Kramer vs. Kramer is a great movie, but
every film about adoptive families or single parents shouldn't have to be as serious
as it was. Raising Helen is not a good example of the lighter approach. Presumably
wanting to appeal to the demographic of young females that go to J-Lo romantic fantasies,
the story makes its characters either unlikeable (Kate's Helen, to some degree) unlikely (the daughter
who is both a tramp and a sweetheart), or a cliché (Jenny, the pregnant alpha mom, the
Bells of St. Mary's- derived preacher).
The packaging touts director Garry Marshall's The Princess Diaries and Pretty Woman, a
pair of fat-headed fantasies that balance each other for charm and irritation. Raising Helen
is a fantasy too, in that it presents a laundry list of real problems and then shows its heroine
dispatching them one by one with little more than her smile. The smart thinking behind the film is
the makers' knowledge that Americans are always entertained by seeing other Americans pretend that
the normal problems of living are easily overcome. Raising Helen took a critical drubbing, but
I'll bet that it won't go down on the books as a flop.
What Raising Helen chooses to say about modern life with kids says everything about modern
American values. Helen works in the glitzy fashion world which allows her to short-cut every
restaurant and club line in town, an immediate dream situation for millions of deluded young people.
She sleeps casually with a young designer with whom she has no serious plans (a bit of honesty, there).
Her employer has no sense of humor about anything but business, and as soon as Helen has other
responsibilities beyond the job, she's out (actually, that's honest too).
Supermoms exist, and they can be very much like Joan's Jenny, overbearing, bossy, and out of touch
with urban culture. And the idea of two sisters clashing over the difference in these values is
fairly fresh - Jenny is the George Bailey older sister who raises her younger sibling, only to see
herself turned into a stay-at-home nester while younger sister goes out and has "a life."
Raising Helen doesn't make very many good decisions after that beginning. Helen is a spoiled
Manhattanite but doesn't turn purple at the idea of having her dream lifestyle overturned. She's
presented as taking her privileged life for granted, yet she gives it all up in a moment, just as
she's on the brink of success. That's not impossible, but it is inconsistent. There's not enough
character development to place Helen in any particular mindset or moral position. She takes on the
responsibilities of the kids because she was moved by some Devo lyrics on a note from her dead
The real content of the movie is fluff filler, incidents and montages in which the new family tries
to cohere. Helen goes from optimism to self doubt without ever experiencing the kind of real thudding
responsibility that would accompany such a life change. Most of the comedy is, in a word, lame. Her
youngest charge disrupts a fashion show, and that's about it.
The private schools where Helen enrolls her kids are the kind that she couldn't afford even if she
had been able to keep her job. When she does find a job, it's a fantasy receptionist gig at a used
car lot that pays $17.50 an hour. Try eight dollars an hour with 'light' accounting responsibilities
or a 'special' relationship with the boss any you'll be closer to the truth of things. This used
car lot appears to be closed nights and weekends, as it never impinges on Helen's time - there are
hints of a missing subplot that might have involved her helping her boss (a charming Hector Elizondo)
with some television ads. These play on afternoon broadcast movie shows, the kind that have been extinct
since the onset of cable television.
The film gives all three adopted kids problems related to the loss of their parents. The youngest
creates a fantasy death scenario around her toy hippo, and the middle boy refuses to play sports
because his father is no longer around to play with him. I sense a strong child psychologist influence
here, but the movie doesn't develop these things in useful directions. Helen seems barely aware of
them. The unhappy hippo problem is cured with a birthday party for the hippo, which serves as a lame excuse for
a talented bit player to do a rap version of the Happy Birthday song. The boy's basketball
depression is barely addressed. What we remember most is Helen yelling at her son's coach, indignant
that he's not been put in the game when he doesn't want to play. And we wonder why little league
games practically need police supervision because of unruly parents.
But the film's biggest failure comes with the oldest daughter, who thinks her 20-something new mom
will allow her to become a teen slut and get away with a beer party and a prom night spent
in a hotel. That's a real enough problem, but again the film doesn't make the characters add up.
The daughter is both extremely affectionate, and hostile and withdrawn at the same time. She has no
serious problems - bad grades, drugs - and her alienation is something that comes and goes for no
reason at all. The film endorses Jenny's tough love solution, that you gotta be authoritarian
and accept the hatred of your kids. Now, that's a false attitude that shows where the filmmakers
are coming from (somewhere between Beverly Hills and Malibu) than anything that works. Anybody who
raises kids for real knows that you either hold onto their hearts and respect by example and luck,
or you lose it. Parents who can't afford to be with their children enough (or are too wealthy to
be with their children enough) end up losing them to whatever street culture attracts their fancy.
As her wardrobe certainly doesn't suffer Helen seemingly has money, and she also has solid sisterly support - New
Jersey to Queens seems to be about a ten minute drive. What I don't understand is why impoverished
Americans with kids who must attend underfunded public schools and who lose any hope of directing
their children toward better things, wouldn't become furious at this fantasy. It must be Kate Hudson's
Parenting is a big laugh, of course. Helen has an immigrant neighbor (Sakina Jaffrey) who intercedes
when needed with Indian pastries and a ball bat to oust unruly (but harmless) loafer-dude teens. The
slapstick and the serious content don't mix well. The most serious problem is a dead turtle, that's been
so severely abused we wonder how it lasted as long as it did.
Finally, there's the boyfriend subplot, which is truly annoying even though Hudson and her costar
John Corbett do nothing wrong at all. It's just a story concept thing - he's around to be a solid
center and the masculine presence that the screenplay assumes Helen needs. He's also perfect, a
man of the cloth who plays hockey and blesses animals at the zoo. He even gets away with placing
Helen's initial rejection of his overtures as her problem. But he's still a hollow character to
round out the fantasy, and that's it.
Curiously, Raising Helen ends a lot like an annoyingly superficial movie from twenty years
ago with Diane Keaton called Baby Boom. Keaton is bounced out of her job for the crime of
taking on a child, but rebounds from tragic (but upscale) exile to take over the business that
trashed her. Helen is able to name her own price back at the agency because her new modeling
(Shakara Ledard) insists, out of the blue, that Helen be her agent. The solution is at hand; now
Helen can have her whoop-de-doo lifestyle and afford the nannies and shrinks to keep the kids at
arms' length. Isn't it great how life works out? I really want to see one of these movies end
with the clock striking twelve, and all the characters turning into pumpkins.
Touchstone's DVD of Raising Helen looks fine, as all major new films do on DVD. There's
really very little reason to see a movie new in the theaters, unless the trip to the mall and the
twenty minutes of ads are part of the appeal. The audio is also good, but be forewarned that
this feature is a prime abuser of the the drag-in-an-oldie-for-a-montage formula. They even play
Simon and Garfunkles At the Zoo over shots of cute animals, for Pete's sake.
A blasé Garry Marshall provides both a commentary (with his writers, ID'd as 'the writers'
on the package back) and on-screen blab to cover the deleted scenes. There are bloopers from the
set to show us how much fun it is to make movies (they laugh all the time!) and a Liz Phair
Raising Helen isn't the worst movie ever made, by far. But it's a good example of real
mediocrity at work. A fine talent like Kate Hudson could do a lot better and should give drama
a serious effort. Joan Cusack's the only main player to get out of this one alive.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Raising Helen rates:
Supplements: commentary, deleted scenes, music video, bloopers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 6, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson