The poster for Raising Helen features Kate Hudson, in a pose suited for a bearskin rug, sporting shorts shorter than the Hulk's temper and fuzzy boots last seen at the hottest strip joint in Anchorage. It's an attempt at marketing a warm and fuzzy movie for guys 25 to 34, but the poster is really a harbinger for how misguided Garry Marshall's latest effort is.
Raising Helen is all about Hudson, who stars in the title role, when it should focus on other topics -- the ties of family, coping with tragedy, and starting your life from scratch. The movie harps on how Helen's glamorous life is turned upside down when she is bequeathed her sister's three kids. The story should be on how hard it is for the kids, rather than Helen's bemoaning how fat her ass has gotten.
Before her life-altering arrangement and her rear end expands, Helen is in what Jack Nicholson's character in Something's Gotta Give would call her "magic time" -- early 20s, the pertness of youth on her side, and the world at her Charles Davids. On the professional side, she has a cool job (assistant to a fashion mogul), access to hot restaurants, and the admiration of the pretty people. Plus, her nieces and nephews love her. So do her older sisters (Joan Cusack and Felicity Huffman), who have grown accustomed to their roles as dependable moms.
Then Huffman's character and her husband die, and their three kids find themselves with Helen. Here is where Raising Helen loses all credibility, and it's a rapid free fall from there. Who would entrust their kids to a Paris Hilton/Carrie Bradshaw wannabe? Marshall and his writers provide an answer, but it's so grounded in inspirational theories of inner strength that you wonder if the kids were initially in such great hands. I'm not a parent, but I wouldn't think you give someone a bunch kids in order to prove a hunch. Don't gamblers do that?
Before that revelation, we're subjected to Helen's struggles with her nieces and nephew. She transplants them from New Jersey to Queens -- away from their friends and family, of course -- and enrolls them in a lush private school with a monthly tuition that has to resemble the tab for Helen's 21st birthday at Studio 54. The movie coasts on goofs and flights of fancy (Helen dates the school's hunky principal, played by John Corbett), stopping every so often for Helen to deliver a nugget of wisdom to steer the kids straight. In every obstacle, Helen is portrayed as the one who triumphs -- a terrible error.
Marshall is obviously treading in the same waters as his previous film, The Princess Diaries. This time, instead of profiling the rags-to-royalty rise of a prospective princess, it's the maturity of a club kid. The big difference: The Princess Diaries didn't have the stench of death involved nor did it have Raising Helen's complex issues to handle. However, the tone in the two movies is the same. Marshall still wants 15-year-old girls to swoon and laugh, but he doesn't consider the implications of his subject matter. The material is treated with no honesty. Marshall refuses to let Hudson fully suffer in her maturity, while the kids get shuffled around to accommodate Helen's moral victories. The relationship between Hudson and Cusack's characters gets told in arguments and shouting matches.
The cast saves Raising Helen from complete ruin, especially Hudson, whose charm makes you root for her, even if you aren't rooting for the screenwriters. Cusack shows conviction as a mom who cares, and Corbett easily plays another hunky nice guy, but like The Princess Diaries, the cast and the audience are saddled with a terrifying message. "Any girl can become a princess" becomes "any girl can reach maturity if she raises three cute kids on their own."
I don't mind sweet, cutesy movies -- I'm the guy who loved Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! for crying out loud -- but a director has to know when to indulge that urge. This isn't one of those times. Raising Helen feels wrong from the start, taking mature subjects and spinning them into candy-coated scenarios for a young audience that doesn't know any better. It's a terrible compromise, and the reason why Helen is better off only raising herself. Besides, why interrupt her magic time, especially for the 25- to 34-year-old guys?
The film's DVD includes gag reel, deleted scenes, and commentary from Marshall and the screenwriters.
When a Hudson comes along, you must whip it.