Raising Helen

Yet another time, director Garry Marshall has benefited from the strengths of his female leads to rescue one of his films from rambling storylines-induced schmaltz. With “Raising Helen”, we have a movie that’s a good 20 minutes too long with its 2 hrs running time, but Kate Hudson and, to a lesser degree but not far behind, Joan Cusack “save” the film from itself, their performances alone making us forgive the maudlin parts of the story.

This latest offering from Marshall (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries) shows a tiger doesn’t change its stripes as the director takes forever, through many detours, to once again present a modern-day fairy tale. In his latest film, 2001’s “Diaries”, it was the winsome Anne Hathaway, with an assist to Julie Andrews, who somehow made the predicament of going from nerdy klutz to gorgeous princess bearable and even sweet to watch. In “Raising Helen”, it is Kate Hudson who shines as the title character, a Manhattan modeling agency’s assistant whose life is turned upside down when she becomes the legal guardian to three children after their parents, including Helen’s sister, die in a car accident. Fans of the Global TV show “Wild Card” will notice a strong similarity in that premise, but I digress.

Much drama ensues in Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s screenplay, in a sometimes uneasy balance of genuine self-examination and artificially created conflict. Helen must leave her glitzy job after one model she was with allows herself to have her make-up “done” by the kids at a daycare, which of course means markers. In a ridiculous scene, she just empties her purse, closes her eyes then just lets the children have their fun when it’s painfully obvious far more than blush and eyeliner are used. Helen also moves to Queens with her new charges, 5 yr-old Sarah (Abigail Breslin), 10-yr old Henry (Spencer Breslin) and 15-yr old Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), where she finds them a school with a hunk of a principal, Pastor Dan (My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s John Corbett). Their next-door apartment neighbor is a nice Indian woman, also a mom, who turns into an amusing baseball bat-carrying motor mouth when it comes to evacuating undesirable individuals. And last but not least, Helen finds a job at a used car dealership, a plot element whose redeeming quality is to provide Marshall favorite Hector Elizondo with some funny scenes as the manager trying to make a decent TV commercial.

Hudson, who was so impressive in Almost Famous, really is the glue holding this film together. There is a scene where she confronts the rebellious (no surprise there) Audrey about her fake I.D. that is as convincing as can be, allowing Hudson’s talent as a dramatic actress to emerge once more. Along those lines, Cusack is excellent as Jenny, Helen’s older sister with two kids of her own who gradually comes to be accepting of the seemingly surprising decision to give Helen the guardianship instead of her.

There are little story arcs for Sarah, about learning to tie her shoelaces, and Henry, about how enjoying life doesn’t mean he would betray the memory of his parents, that didn’t register too much with me. Especially in Sarah’s case, they seemed shamelessly designed to wring a tear out of the audience. But if Marshall isn’t shy to play with moviegoers’ emotions, there’s no denying he lets his actors (usually actresses) shine, as they can handle the material expertly.

There is a case to be made for films like this one, ultimately fluffy but still hinting at the strength of individual resolve and the will to care for others besides oneself. “Raising Helen” works in spite of its shortcomings because of its very competent female roles and performances. It has a fairy tale worldview revealing the director’s signature, but given this framework, it’s also a charming little movie. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay