Raising Helen (2004)

Sometimes they say, “Too many montages.” Well, they can go make their own movies.
— Garry Marshall, commentary track, Raising Helen

Raising Helen‘s a happy, peppy picture, with Kate Hudson and her legs.” As Garry Marshall watches Helen (Hudson) cross the frame at the start of his movie, he is as ebullient a commentator as one could hope to hear on a DVD audio track. Regaling story writer Beth Rigazio and screenplay writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, the director has them laughing and energized within minutes: you can imagine that his set is one fun time.

This commentary track is easily the DVD’s most delightful extra (the others being bloopers, ho-hum deleted scenes, and the music video for Liz Phair’s “Extraordinary,” the film’s designated “theme song”), offering father-figure Marshall the chance to encourage his writers to explain their thinking, while extolling the many virtues of his cast. This as they survey the opening scenes, which establish Helen’s NYC glam existence in contrast to the simpler pleasures of her two happily married sisters, warm Lindsay (Felicity Huffman; Marshall, ever the shtickster, says, “She took the part because she thought it was interesting to do the beginning of a movie”) and prissy Jenny (Joan Cusack).

As Helen simultaneously inspires awe (in her black mini-dress) and resentment (as she’s headed off for some nightlife), Amiel notes that this first scene, all kids and parents and sofas and dancing to Devo in New Jersey — were “tricky because we had to establish the family and their dynamic so quickly, and then… the end was near.” Marshall adds, “You wanted to establish them so you’d know who they were if something happened to them but not so well that…” And here Rigazio picks up, “That you’d care…”

The rub is that Lindsay and her husband will die soon after, leaving fast-track sophisticate Helen with their three kids. Helen 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, who, Marshall ba-dum-bumps, “took the role because she got to pick her own wig,” as she’s usually playing that dowdy detective on the “British series”]), Helen earns her clients’ loyalty, her boss’ trust, and a decent salary that pays for her sweet apartment.

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, whom Amiel says is 13 “going on about 28”) 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 stems 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.

As she works it out with the kids, Helen finds a way to have a relationship with their school principal, Pastor Dan (John Corbett, in essentially the same part he plays opposite Nia Vardalos or Hilary Duff, that is, infinitely patient with a sense of humor and sanity amid familial turmoil), this sort of romance being necessary in a romantic comedy, even if it does feel piled on top of the more interesting romance between Helen and the kids. (On Pastor Dan’s introduction, Amiel muses that they considered making the love interest a contractor, but were convinced otherwise by the producers: “We went with it, and had to learn a lot about pastors.”)

At the same time, Raising Helen 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.