Helen Harris (Kate Hudson) is living the freewheeling fashion industry life in
New York, totally absorbed in her own problems and frustrations. When Helen's
sister (Felicity Huffman) dies, her children (Spenser Breslin, Abigail Breslin,
and Hayden Panettiere) are bequeathed to Helen, much to the shock of the other
surviving sister, the psychotically maternal Jenny (Joan Cusack). Now, responsible for three kids, Helen soon finds that her life is
slipping away from her. Fired from her job, entangled in an awkward relationship
with a Lutheran pastor (John Corbett), and unable to keep tabs on her charges,
Helen is overwhelmed by motherhood and reluctantly turns to Jenny for help
learning the ropes.
Director Garry Marshall always seems to make the same movie with whatever script
he decides to shoot. He's a filmmaker dependent on anodyne, oatmeal material
that will provide a nice warm hug for the audience, and keep his odds for box
office success alive for another year. He's had some big hits ("Pretty Woman,"
"Beaches," "Runaway Bride"), but for a man directing for over 20 years, nothing
extraordinary has come from it. His latest, "Raising Helen," (IMDb listing) is completely and
utterly a Garry Marshall film. Coated in a suffocating goo that is supposed to
represent emotional reverberation, and performed by a cast that is either
miscast or just old fashioned bad, "Helen" does represent something of a career
benchmark for Marshall: it's his worst film to date.
Seriously, "Helen" makes "Exit to Eden" look like a trip to the Wonka factory.
Marshall is a filmmaker who loves his emotionally calculating pap, and while
other directors can easily get away with it, Marshall always loses his focus
when he overextends himself trying to engage his audience. "Helen" has all the
saccharine ingredients that Marshall loves: dead people, life lessons, affluent
families, and unbearable Hollywood kids who act more like they're in a
toothpaste commercial than feature film. It's all like catnip to this
director. Since Marshall has been down this road many times before (if not with
this plot, for sure this genre), he's content to coast on the PG-13 charms of
the production without ever really trying to connect to the audience without
absolute manipulation. Why else would he cast Kate Hudson in a lead role, if not
to seduce interest in this crud through her glowing smile and eclectic charms?
Hudson does what she's hired for, but it isn't nearly enough. Her recent career
trajectory of romantic comedies ("How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days") has been
greatly disappointing, but you can feel her true comedic talents simmering under
the weight of obligation that Marshall has placed on her to be ceaselessly
endearing. Only in a Garry
Marshall film would Helen's entire dramatic backbone hinge on
lyrics to a Devo song.
Hudson's scenes with John Corbett are also flooded with unease, partially
because the two share little chemistry, but mostly because Corbett is a lousy
actor. You believe the sluggish Corbett more as a tough Lutheran pastor than as
a sexual being, which is the opposite of the film's intentions. Joan Cusack is
swimming upstream trying to remain her wacky self, but feeling little love from
the script and her confusing character. And the kids are classic examples of
well-oiled tinseltown rugrats who take any believability out of the scenario
with gobs of sassmouth or performing a Marshall favorite: the weepy, helpless
routine. Did we learn nothing from "School of Rock?" It's great that these kids
can hit their marks and learn their lines, but they (especially the Breslin
siblings) always come off more as trained seals than real children.
"Raising Helen" is a transparent, coldly manipulative audience-pleasing
comedy/drama that doesn't deserve your attention, tears, or time. This is first
of two movies this summer from Marshall ("Princess Diaries 2" arrives in
August), but let's all hope that is the brunt of the sap that the filmmaker can
Filmfodder Grade: D-