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Raising Helen

Raising Helen
2004 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 119 min. / Street Date October 12, 2004 / 29.99
Starring Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack, Hayden Panettiere, Spencer Breslin, Abigail Breslin, Helen Mirren, Sakina Jaffrey, Hector Elizondo
Cinematography Charles Minsky, Michael Stone
Production Designer Steven J. Jordan
Film Editor Bruce Green, Tara Timpone
Original Music John Debney
Written by Patrick J. Clifton, Beth Rigazio, Jack Amiel, Michael Begler
Produced by Ashok Amritraj, David Hoberman
Directed by Garry Marshall

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 sister?

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 smile.

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 discovery Tinka (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 music video.

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:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: commentary, deleted scenes, music video, bloopers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 6, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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