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Raising Helen

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 05/31/04 18:32:58

"Motherhood statements"
3 stars (Average)

Garry Marshall is a woman’s director. Check out his filmography: The Princess Diaries, Runaway Bride, Pretty Woman, Beaches... I bet he’s never had to direct a truck explode or a building collapse or a decent-sized explosion. With Raising Helen, he proves he is nothing if not consistent. It’s another contemporary romantic drama-comedy centred on the travails of a young woman.

Helen (Kate Hudson) is executive assistant to the autocratic Dominique (Helen Mirren), the titular head of a chic Manhattan modelling agency. Helen’s on the fast track to promotion when her life is derailed by the unexpected death of older sister Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) and her husband.

Bossy middle sister Jenny (Joan Cusack) is a full time stay-at-home mother, with a fetish for potpourri and a Pottery Barn lifestyle. She expects to be awarded sole guardianship of Lindsay’s three orphaned kids: rebellious 15 year-old Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), 10 year-old Henry (Spencer Breslin from Cat in the Hat and The Kid) and 5 year-old Sarah (Abigail Breslin from Signs). Instead, it’s pampered party girl Helen who suddenly finds herself in charge. Her new status as single mother has predictably cataclysmic implications for her career, image, social life and disposable income.

Will Helen face up to the challenge and become a better person in the process? Or does she dump the 5 year-old at an institution and sell the other kids into slavery? No prizes for guessing the right answer. Helen forsakes her glamorous apartment for a family-sized dump in Queens, then loses her job at the agency and winds up a receptionist at a used car lot. She enrols the kids in the local Lutheran school and - before you can say “sexy man of God” - hunky principal Father Dan (John Corbett from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) is asking her out on a date.

Screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (The Prince and Me), working from a story by Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio, stuff a lot of incident into Raising Helen. Marshall sweeps through the material briskly, like he’s ticking off a checklist. Several of the subplots could almost have been stretched to fill a movie on their own: Dan and Helen’s romance, Helen and her sisters, spoilt-rich-girl-copes-with-downsized-career, three orphaned kids adjusting to life in a religious school. It’s to Marshall’s credit that he only stops long enough for us to take in the scenario before moving on. Raising Helen’s business-like pace also leaves less time for proceedings to be overwhelmed by weepy sentiment.

Kate Hudson is surprisingly likeable once she settles into the lead role. Still, she couldn’t make me believe in the reality of the plot for an instant. This doesn’t stop Raising Helen from being entertaining but it does preclude it from convincing as drama. The over-emphatic Joan Cusack brings trademark humour to the film’s drabbest role. The child actors are all fine, although the mildness of Audrey’s rebellion is enough to bring on the giggles if you’ve seen thirteen. Helen Mirren is all class in her brief scenes. Can someone tell me why Hector Elizondo appears in every Garry Marshall movie? His role as the insecure owner of the used car yard is completely extraneous.

If you’ve seen a Garry Marshall film, and - let’s face it - most of us have by now, you’ll know pretty much what to expect: laughter, tears and moral uplift. His film’s stories may encompass grief or pain, but the end result only ever leaves you with a warm glow. Raising Helen is relentlessly upbeat; a birthday party scene has the same emotional tone as a scene at a wake. Raising Helen’s cinematographer and composer have both worked with Marshall before. Charles Minsky’s photography is predictably steely-bright; John Debney’s score has a stardust twinkle.

The benefit of Marshall’s prodigious experience in the entertainment industry is that his “product” reaches a consistent, minimum standard. The cost is that it rarely if ever rises above that standard. Film art is rare, and it’s as much a result of accident as design. Marshall’s smooth, calculated approach renders such “mistakes” unlikely if not impossible.

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