THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Here’s a partial list of movies that are nearly identical to Raising Helen: Three Men and a Baby, Baby Boom, Big Daddy, Jack and Sarah, Jersey Girl. You know the drill. An Irresponsible Career-Minded Person (ICMP) suddenly becomes a parent, usually after the death of a wife/sibling/friend. ICMP finds him/herself woefully inept at parenting and eventually yearns to have Old Life back. Eventually ICMP realizes that Old Life without children is not as fulfilling as New Life with children. This formula is a day older than dirt, but it has been used to make some good movies. It’s also been used to make movies like Raising Helen.

Kate Hudson plays Helen Harris, an executive assistant at a top modeling agency. Helen is really into her job and all its accoutrements (dating male models, nonstop partying, etc). Helen has two sisters, both of whom are married with children. It is a rule in low-rent domestic tearjerkers that there must be a scene in which all the characters dance and lip synch to an oldie, and so we get a scene in which Helen and her extended family bop around the living room to a classic Devo tune. Has your family ever done this? Do you know of any family that ever has?

Then older sister Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) and her husband are killed in a car accident. The will leaves custody of their three children to Helen, not to Jenny (Joan Cusack), the anal-retentive responsible sister. The reason for this perplexing choice is explained in two letters, one to each sister, the contents of which are not revealed until it’s dramatically appropriate (i.e. at the end). Helen attempts to take care of adolescent Audrey (Hayden Panettiere) and youngsters Henry (Spencer Breslin) and Sarah (Abigail Breslin). However, this means quitting her agency job and working at (gasp!) a used car dealership.

Romantic interest is provided in the form of Pastor Dan (John Corbett), who runs the parochial school she enrolls the children in. He’s a patented Nice Guy who tries to help her out. We know they are meant to be together by the way she suddenly becomes stupid in his presence; Helen is supposed to be smart enough to manage top models, yet she believes Pastor Dan’s joke about proving her religion through a blood test. Eventually a Big Crisis rears its ugly head, forcing Helen to take the job of raising children seriously. She then sets out to prove her newfound seriousness to Jenny.

You know those scenes in Shrek 2 in which Puss in Boots stops and makes cutesy, goo-goo kitty eyes at people? Well, this movie is like that look. It’s so cloying, designed to manipulate your heartstrings at every conceivable turn. The problem is that manipulation quickly becomes apparent. You eventually realize that there’s no substance here. That fact is evident in the big things – you can foresee every single plot development coming long before it actually gets there – as well as in the small things. Every element is designed to show that Helen is a Good Person who loves children and will make a wonderful mother just as soon as she grows up. Pardon my skepticism, but I believe the kids would have been better off with Jenny.

Sometimes the movie’s ineptitude is just laughable. Consider this moment: at the wake, Jenny’s husband explains the fatal accident to a guest in great detail. The man just shakes his head, mutters “what a shame” and wanders off. Doesn’t that seem rude? Then again, this movie is only about what’s on the surface, not what’s underneath. Trying to mine an emotional truth would be too difficult for such a shallow picture. Yeah, it’s a shame three children were orphaned. Let’s move on to Helen.

Kate Hudson burst onto the scene with her Oscar-nominated turn in Cameron Crowe’s brilliant Almost Famous (she should have won). Since that time, she’s proceeded to make crap. Alex & Emma was excruciating and Le Divorce was pretentiously dull. Even I didn’t see The Four Feathers and I see just about everything. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days was enjoyable, but lightweight. I find Hudson’s career choices frustrating. She’s got the talent and the likeability to be a major star, but she doesn’t have the quality control. The inherent charisma of Hudson and co-star Joan Cusack keep the movie from being an all-out disaster, although I honestly think this material is beneath both of them.

As I said, the plot of Raising Helen has been done before. The most recent time was this past March, when Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl came out. The difference is that Jersey Girl had wit, intelligence, and emotion. Raising Helen just represents lazy, by-the-numbers screenwriting. Rather than injecting the story with anything fresh, the usual clichés are hauled out and recycled. I also had an inherent problem with the message. The point of Jersey Girl was that the sacrifices we make for our children are worth making. In contrast, the message of Raising Helen is that you’ll be automatically become a better person by taking care of children, no matter how big a screw-up you are. One message is honest and sincere; the other is a bunch of feel-good Hollywood bull.

( 1/2 out of four)

Raising Helen is rated PG-13 for thematic issues involving teens. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.

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