Raising Helen (2004)


Liz Phair’s “Extraordinary,” currently running over the trailers for Raising Helen, calls to mind the singer’s familiar schizzy charms. With lyrics like “I am extraordinary, I am just your ordinary, / Average everyday sane psycho supergoddess,” the song is part pop, part angry-girlish, part ironic, pushing a bit of attitude even as it plays coy. As such, the song seems an odd choice to pitch Garry Marshall’s movie, which is anything but complicated, ironic, or “extraordinary.”

In fact, like star Kate Hudson’s other recent films (Alex & Emma, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), this one is blandly formulaic: as Helen, she’s in need of stability and romance, both conveniently supplied by a cuddly hunkish sort, here John Corbett as Pastor Dan, essentially the same part he played opposite Nia Vardalos, infinitely patient fellow with a sense of humor and sanity amid familial turmoil.

Helen herself is a delightful girl, bubbly and vaguely naïve as Hudson tends to be in movies, an occasional smoke and enthusiastic partier, primarily dedicated to her career. A fast-tracking assistant to the head of a New York modeling agency (the painfully named Dominique [Helen Mirren]), Helen earns her clients’ loyalty, her boss’ trust, and a decent salary that pays for her NYC apartment. On the occasions when she takes the train to New Jersey to visit with her happily married sisters, Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) and Jenny (Joan Cusack), Helen simultaneously inspires awe (in her sleek black mini-dress) and resentment (as she’s headed off for some nightlife).

Though she’s happy, Helen is single, and that won’t stand in a romantic comedy. And so, within a few minutes of all frothy introduction, she runs smack into a crisis: during a business lunch in a fancy restaurant, she gets a cell phone call and the camera pulls out and up: Lindsay and her husband have died in a car accident. Worse (or better, depending on how much slack you’re willing to cut this flick), they’ve left their three kids — 14-year-old Audrey (Hayden Panettiere) and little cuties Henry (Spencer Breslin) and Sarah (Abigail Breslin) — not to the obvious choice (Jenny, who has “the mom haircut”), but to Helen. And with this abrupt change, Helen must be responsible, attend to the kids’ schedules and meals, and, as Sarah reminds her, “check my nose boogies for infection.”

Helen’s initial efforts to maintain her previous life are as glib as her inheritance of the children. When a trip into Manhattan for pizza goes well, she decides she’ll move everyone to live with her in Queens (this even though Jenny warns her that during this time of ostensible trauma, “the familiar is better than the hustle and bustle of the city”). Audrey is particularly pleased with the hustle and bustle, as she gets more chance to act out her upset (and she appears to be quite alone in this upset, very strangely). At her new Lutheran school, she hooks up with some slouchy sk8er bois who, in this film’s utterly conventional language, signify Trouble.

As Helen must endure still more difficulty in order to be fully “raised” (and to extend the film to a feature running time) she must confront Dominique’s sniffily dismissive contention, that “Fashion and family don’t mix.” Helen goes so far as to illustrate the dictum when she brings the kids along to a night time show, which leads directly to the unsurprising set piece spectacle of a pajama-ed Sarah causing chaos on a models’ runway.

Dutifully hurt when she’s fired, Helen finds employment elsewhere, far “beneath” her skills. With a new job as a receptionist for a car dealer (Hector Elizondo), Helen gets her adult-ish life together, while still struggling to shape her parental role. She’s immediately good with the five-year-old Sarah and even finds a way to make nice with the preternaturally wise 10-year-old Henry, but her relationship with Audrey is increasingly troubled, as they share similar desires and lack of judgment. (When Audrey accuses her of not remembering what it’s like to be a kid, Helen says that in fact she does, because it was “last week.”)

This dysfunction appears to stem from Helen’s inability to set boundaries. When she comes home one evening to find a wild party in their apartment, she has no concept of how to get Audrey’s surly classmates to leave. What to do, what to do? Call the baseball-bat-wielding neighbor lady, Nilma (Sakina Jaffrey), whose accented English and ready fury make her a tiresome cliché, a lesson in hysterical toughness for the wussy white girl.

Throughout the wind-down to Helen’s working it out with the kids and finding a way to have a relationship with that cute Pastor Dan, Raising Helen also makes gestures toward the other familial reconciliation, between Helen and Jenny. No surprise, they both harbor deep-seated resentments toward one another, compounded by their shared belief that Jenny “deserved” the children over Helen. Believing that she’s the better parent, Jenny essentially waits for Helen to fail, then offers to take the kids, as if it’s some sort of triumph for her over her sister. None of the seeming grown-ups takes responsibility for or actually counsels the children who are, by rights, traumatized and grieving over their parents’ horribly sudden deaths. Not to mention that such distress is the premise for Helen’s “personal growth” or a sugary romantic comedy. The inevitable happy ending allows Helen to “have it all,” but you might still be worrying about those kids.

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