`Raising Helen': no lift here


May 28, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



Here's a simple rule for successful crowd-pleasers: When aiming for the "warm and fuzzy," the warmth should be equal to the fuzziness. (Some fizz would help, too.) The new Garry Marshall heartbreak dramedy Raising Helen doesn't generate enough heat to cut through its woolly lessons about family and responsibility.

Marshall casts a fresh, young star, Kate Hudson, in the title role, then overuses her ability to make her eyes go dreamy and her whole face go otherworldly. Whether her chic modeling-agency-employee-turned-parent stumbles into romance or gamely fields a niece's question about nasal management, Hudson takes the harshness off the jokes and makes them slide down easily. Too easily. (It's the opposite of her mother Goldie Hawn's early specialty: a giddiness that could turn lame gags into comic explosives.) Because director Marshall's own method in this movie is to balance a young woman's demands for romantic and domestic love (and career) on the cushiest kind of teeter-totter, the result is crippling softness and blandness.

Before the movie is a half-hour old, a car crash leaves Helen with two orphaned nieces and a nephew: a hormone-addled teenage girl (Hayden Panettiere), a boy so depressed he can't even play basketball (Spencer Breslin) and a tyke just learning to tie her shoes (Abigail Breslin). The will of Helen's older sister (Felicity Huffman) has placed these kids in Helen's hands, though her older surviving sister (Joan Cusack) is the likelier candidate for guardianship. Cusack's so driven to be a good mother that she orders around the fetus in her belly.

Helen was close to the deceased in temperament: They were both wacky enough to don the rock group Devo's swirly, stacked-canister-like red hats and wig out to "Whip It." But changing from the fast lane to the mommy track requires more of this party gal than moving from Manhattan to a bigger apartment in unfashionable Queens. She must get help in fostering homey values from John Corbett as a hunky Lutheran minister named Pastor Dan (doesn't that regular-guy moniker tell you everything?) and help in assuming maternal authority from Cusack as the mother of all mothers.

In one broad but effective scene, Cusack asks one of Helen's new neighbors, an Indian-American mother (Sakina Jaffrey), to give her sister a hand. Cusack and Jaffrey share all knowledge about child-rearing in a series of nods and grunts and monosyllables. Screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler work out Helen's advancement in motherhood with the equivalent of that code.

Paper-thin, under-dramatized arguments about domestic obligations and accountability break out inexplicably. (An early snit-fit Helen throws at her new clerical beau feels as if it belongs in a later part of the movie.) Still, you know what these writers are propounding: close family ties and domestic stability, preferably with wholesome and handsome Pastor Dan.

Marshall and his screenwriters use forced humor and tenderness to sugarcoat the most farfetched aspects of their story. When Helen enrolls her kids in Pastor Dan's parochial school, he jokes that they'll need blood tests to prove that they're Lutherans, and Helen, panicking, says they're "hemophiliacs." Every time a figure from Helen's fashion or club-hopping life does something cold, it's offset with a feeling gesture. Helen's refreshingly steely boss (Helen Mirren) declares "fashion and family don't mix." But even this ice queen melts under the right circumstances.

Marshall and company want to prove that people are basically good: They even include a virtuous used-car dealer (played without credit by Hector Elizondo). But every "complication" grows predictable. Cusack's crackling gusto makes you cheer her big mom-enforcement scene - she saves Panettiere from a teen Lothario. But she can't make you swallow the gimmicks and contortions that transform her ant-like aunt and Helen's grasshopper into allies.

By the end, this movie's balancing act is the equivalent of network news' equal-time laws. The "fairness" becomes deadening.

Raising Helen

Starring Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack

Directed by Garry Marshall

Rated PG-13

Released by Touchstone

Time 113 minutes

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