At its heart, "Raising Helen" may be another shopworn story of a harried, young Cosmopolitan Career Gal in for a cosmic life lesson about her priorities. But in terms of cliché-baiting, it's more important what this movie is not:
It's not a Hollywood pat on the head that insincerely extols the nobility of a modest life in which family takes precedent over hustle and bustle. This film's conflicts aren't quite that easily resolved.
It's not a movie in which said Career Gal (Kate Hudson) has to stand up to her harpy of a boss who is too supercilious and self-absorbed to care about her employees' problems -- and either get fired or quit dramatically as a result. The problems and the boss (Helen Mirren, giving the role a feisty touch of dry comedy) are more complicated than that.
And it's not a movie in which answers and aptitude come on cue for Hudson's title character, a chic handler at a Manhattan modeling agency whose rising star is shot down when three kids are thrust upon her after her sister is killed in a car accident. In fact, at exactly the moment when she should be rising to the occasion as a surrogate parent to cue the treacly finale, she unexpectedly chokes. Her resentful other sister -- a practiced suburban housewife played by Joan Cusack (who finds a deep reservoir of humor in her soccer mom frustrations) -- has to come to Hudson's rescue.
"Raising Helen" does, however, get off to a pretty shaky start. Frontloaded with simplistically symbolic scenes of Helen's fabulous life -- and even worse, one of those sequences in which characters dance and sing along to a classic pop song -- at first director Garry Marshall seems to be headed down the same kind of hackney-potholed road he's traveled so many times before ("Beaches," "Pretty Woman," "Dear God," The Princess Diaries").
But as soon as Helen sits down with the three kids -- petulant 15-year-old Audrey (talented, beautiful Hayden Panettiere, "Ally McBeal"), 10-year-old Henry (hammy Spencer Breslin, "The Cat in the Hat") and 5-year-old Sarah (Breslin's button-cute sister Abigail, "Signs") -- the movie shows unexpected promise that grows and grows.
Because none of them can believe the apparently poor judgment of the children's passed-on parents, this meeting quickly becomes both hilarious and revealing. The scene sets the tone for the film's wit, uncommon emotional honesty and ingenuous, intelligent dialogue that follows a somewhat atypical route to its expected -- yet open-ended -- conclusion.
Coming off a string of pandering, unforgivably lame romantic comedies, Hudson makes something of a comeback here in a charming performance of initially egocentric imperfection. Even better is John Corbett ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding") as Pastor Dan, her surprising love interest and principal at the laid-back Lutheran school where Helen enrolls the kids after giving up her downtown digs and moving to working-class Queens. Their relationship, while a source of sweetness and humor, is unusually realistic for a movie like this, especially in the wake of Dan's well intentioned but badly timed suggestions on how Helen could better communicate with the kids.
But far more than the actors or director, the writers (there were four of them) deserve credit for this movie's lack of sap and deft balancing of light comedy and heavy themes. All the chaos one would expect does ensue in "Raising Helen" -- little Sarah gets underfoot at work (in this case, wreaking havoc at a fashion show), teenage Audrey acts out by partying and running off with the school bad boy, Helen tries to pass off a pet-store ringer for Henry's dead turtle -- but the script is creative in the way these events help build the characters.
There are other contrivances less successfully camouflaged all throughout the picture, especially relating to Helen's career, which has been knocked off course by her instant motherhood. And when our heroine finally feels her parental instincts truly click into place, Marshall can't resist falling back on a trite flashback montage of happy moments to shorthand the emotion. Maybe he didn't think Hudson was good enough to get the point across with acting, and maybe he's right.
But despite having several strikes against it going in -- Hudson, Marshall, and the outward appearance of cloying sentimentalism -- the movie defeated my natural cynicism by being, well, natural.
PS: Attached to "Raising Helen" is a surprise additional pleasantry -- a spectacular, surreal Disney cartoon short featuring a fat feline in a pet store window who pays a high price for taunting hungry alley cats.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Friday 28th May 2004
Box Office USA: $37.4M
Box Office Worldwide: $49.7M
Distributed by: Buena Vista Pictures
Production compaines: Touchstone Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 23%
Fresh: 29 Rotten: 99
IMDB: 6.0 / 10
Director: Garry Marshall
Starring: Kate Hudson as Helen Harris, Joan Cusack as Jenny Portman, Hayden Panettiere as Audrey Davis, Spencer Breslin as Henry Davis, Abigail Breslin as Sarah Davis, Helen Mirren as Dominique, John Corbett as Pastor Dan Parker, Felicity Huffman as Lindsay Davis, Paris Hilton as Amber, Sandra Taylor as Lacey, Evan Sabara as Oliver Portman, Catherine Tayrien as Jasmine Portman, Amber Valletta as Martina Allegretta, Sakina Jaffrey as Nilma Prasad, Sean O'Bryan as Paul Davis, Shakara Ledard as Tinka
Also starring: Hector Elizondo
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