Even Hudson's charms can't help 'Helen'
Seattle Times movie critic
Kate Hudson, with her ray-of-sunshine smile, crinkly eyes and infectious giggle, is absolutely adorable. This is not news; movie audiences have known this since Cameron Crowe's 2000 rock-music valentine "Almost Famous," in which she had her first major role — and, alas, her last good one.
"Raising Helen," Garry Marshall's limp, "Baby Boom"-ish comedy/drama about a young woman who suddenly becomes guardian of her sister's three children, is carefully structured around Hudson's charms. But it's difficult to build any movie (least of all a two-hour tearjerker) on charm alone, and "Raising Helen" tumbles like a house of pretty cards — there's nothing holding this movie up but that smile.
You can't blame Hudson here; she's certainly giving it her best shot, bouncing through the movie like she's breathing happier air. Like Drew Barrymore, she seems to have a gift for creating lightness and for finding effortless chemistry with her co-stars. (I suspect the reason why Hudson has never shared a screen with Barrymore is because the two of them would cause a camera to overload its adorability quotient and possibly explode. But can't you just see them playing giggly long-lost sisters or something?)
But while Marshall clearly adores his young star, he doesn't seem to trust her. In an early scene, Helen gets the phone call that changes her life — while at brunch with friends, she learns that her sister and brother-in-law have been killed in a car accident. As Hudson's voice trembles, the camera starts pulling away from the table, farther and farther, until we're watching the scene from what feels like a balcony across the street. Did Hudson just not have the skills to pull off this difficult, intimate moment up close? Or was Marshall worried that genuine emotion might mar the bland, TV-movie artlessness of his film?
Written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, "Raising Helen" rarely touches on anything resembling the messiness of real life. Helen has a glamorous job at a Manhattan modeling agency and a carefree off-hours life as a party girl. When sister Lindsay dies, their third sister Jenny (Joan Cusack), herself a suburban mom, is assumed to be the logical guardian of Lindsay's children — but all are shocked to find Helen named instead.
After shaking her pretty curls, Helen sets her jaw and determines to raise those children for her beloved sister. And then, ho-hum, she finds a family-sized apartment in Queens, enrolls the kids in private school, falls for the school's cute principal (John Corbett, reprising his low-key Aidan from "Sex and the City"), and learns some Life Lessons. Marshall draws out this non-drama for all it's worth, stretching every scene to its limit. But there's no real conflict, and the screenplay sometimes approaches idiocy. (In a scene that seems to immediately follow the parents' funeral, Helen and Jenny worry that the kids are "not happy." Um, didn't they just lose their parents? Why on earth would they be happy?)
Cusack, as always, adds a bit of welcome spark; her Jenny is a perfect mom frustrated that Helen gets all the attention. But the script has turned her into a potpourri-loving caricature from which even the resourceful Cusack can't emerge. "Raising Helen" at times seems to be congratulating itself for eventually recognizing that mommies don't necessarily have to live in the suburbs and wear frumpy cardigans. But do we really need a two-hour movie to tell us that? Memo to Hudson's agent: Get on the phone with Barrymore's people. A smile is a terrible thing to waste.
Moira Macdonald: firstname.lastname@example.org
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