Buena Vista // 2004 // 119 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // December 6th, 2004
Her uptown life gets turned inside out!
This! Is an example! Of a movie! That is partly doomed! By inappropriate marketing! The number of exclamation marks on the DVD case made me dizzy even before I realized that Raising Helen is not the madcap romantic comedy those exclamation points want it to be. Far from being "a hit romantic comedy from the director of The Princess Diaries and Pretty Woman!" and "a laugh-filled treat you're sure to fall in love with!," Raising Helen did less-than-stellar at the box office and tilted more towards melodrama than romantic comedy...with the odd bit of romance and comedy thrown in, just to make the marketing people happy. But even they couldn't possibly be satisfied with this sentimental movie that's devoid of real feeling.
Helen Harris (Kate Hudson, Almost Famous) is a rising star at a successful New York modeling agency, on the fast track to becoming a powerful agent herself. When her older sister and brother-in-law die in a car accident, free-spirit Helen and supermom middle sis Jenny (Joan Cusack, In and Out) are both stunned to learn that Helen has been named the guardian of their three surviving children.
By taking in 15-year old Audrey, 10-year-old Henry, and 5-year-old Sarah, Helen is forced to give up her job, her Manhattan apartment, and her life. But she does acquire a character-filled apartment in Queens, a steady job at a used car lot, and a tepid flirtation with a Lutheran pastor (John Corbett, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), who is also the principal of the kids' school. Since Jenny is standing in the wings ready to take over, Helen is tempted to trade her new life for the old one...except those kids and Pastor Dan are so gosh-darned loveable.
I'm a sucker for a romantic comedy, even a bad romantic comedy. It's a fondness I can't reconcile with any feminist leanings I might have, so I've learned to embrace it as a guilty pleasure. But I object to the label "romantic comedy" slapped onto a movie that has so little of either element in order to sucker people like me into watching. And it's not just that the romantic bits aren't very tender, or the comedic bits aren't very funny. Raising Helen is a commitment-shy movie that's not brave enough to be dramatic or comedic or romantic; it veers away from any of those choices until it's left with nothing.
The basic plot is that a flighty woman is forced to become responsible for three children after her beloved sister's death, and the script relishes every sappy moment. It should be to its credit that the movie doesn't use death as a gimmick to move on to the wacky set-up of having Aunt Helen in over her head as substitute mom. But there are no true emotional responses here, either. The script forgets the characters' grief when convenient and brings it up again when the moment calls for some tears.
Add Garry Marshall, Kate Hudson, and John Corbett, and Raising Helen is forced into the romantic comedy box. But Hudson's shrieks and pratfalls aren't enough to count as comedy, and the romance could be lifted out of the script without leaving much of a void.
Corbett is usually a wonderful object of affection, from Northern Exposure to Sex and the City, but even he can't get away with lines like "I'm a sexy man of God and I know it," especially when his delivery seems more embarrassed than ironic. His wardrobe leaves something to be desired, too -- maybe it's just me, but a clerical collar is not a sexy fashion accessory. He plays the nice guy well, but the crowded script leaves no room for his relationship with Helen to develop.
The script squeezes in far more characters and issues than it can explore, so talented Hector Elizondo and Helen Mirren are relegated to roles only slightly more substantial than famous-for-being-famous Paris Hilton's cameo. Please, please, Hollywood -- stop giving this girl screen time before she believes she's an actress. Oh. Too late. More effective is Amber Valleta's brief appearance as a sympathetic model who lets a kindergarten class play with her makeup, with disastrous results.
More evidence of a weak script is that we have to suspend our disbelief that responsible parents would name a guardian for their children without ever mentioning it to said guardian, and that the guardian would agree to the task without making arrangements for concessions at her all-hours job, and that she would rent an apartment without looking at it first, and that it's better to take children to work rather than have their 15-year-old sibling babysit. There are too many times we have to accept that everything will be as difficult as possible, because the characters are too dumb to exist in the real world and characteristics they possess in one scene will vanish the next.
One of the funniest moments of the film relies on us accepting that Helen, who excelled in her profession and was a pro at faking her way to the front of the VIP line, suddenly lost those skills when the children crossed her doorstep. Eager to send them to a private Lutheran school, she ineptly tries to pretend that they are Lutheran, not realizing that the school isn't exclusive. Pastor Dan says they can be admitted after a blood test proves their religion, causing her to respond that they are hemophiliac and can't have blood drawn. "It's a joke!" he says. "Why would I joke about hemophilia?" she wails. Funny? Well, it's what passes for funny in this movie. Consistent with the character? Who cares!
If I liked the movie more, the soundtrack probably wouldn't have irritated me so much, but the musical choices are a little too on-the-nose and demonstrate the same lack of imagination evident in the rest of the production. When Helen's in fabulous modeling world mode, the song lyrics exult "I am Extraordinary." When she's saddled with the kids, it's "Whose Life Am I In?" Immediately before the Indian neighbor is introduced, it's a popular Bollywood tune. When they go to the zoo, it's Paul Simon's "At the Zoo." And so on. Marshall is not a subtle director, and the song choices follow the same hammer-the-message-home approach.
There is a decent selection of extras. Previews start playing when you put the disc in your player -- something I know many people find annoying, but I've always loved sneak peeks and actually prefer them to play automatically. Besides, if you don't want to watch them, that's what those little buttons on the remote control are for.
One word sums up the other extras: annoying. Actually, it sums up Garry Marshall, and unfortunately there's a lot of Garry Marshall here. His comments act as book ends to each deleted scene, where he speaks as though only children or people who are just learning English are watching ("if you don't know what 'deleted' means."). The bloopers are moderately funny, there's a video of Liz Phair's "Extraordinary," and the commentary is more Garry Marshall than one person should have to endure. He's joined by the writers, so the comments are skewed towards script issues. If you aren't as annoyed by Marshall as I am, you will find it chatty, informative, and more amusing than the movie.
The technical aspects of the disc far surpass the content -- all the way up to a solid "satisfactory." The colors are as perky and bright as the movie pretends to be, no source flaws are evident, and only some minor edge enhancement slightly mars the transfer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 doesn't have a lot of surround in its sound, with most audio concentrated in the front channels, but the dialogue is clear and musical selections are showcased nicely.
This is heresy coming from a lover of romantic comedies, but this movie would have been better served as a drama, with a script, director, and cast that could support the emotional weight of a somber story, maybe with elements of humor and romance. Or, it could have chosen to be a light and fluffy romantic comedy with Love Actually overtones of poignancy. Instead, it chose to be neither -- and you should choose not to spend your time or money on it.
Guilty! Everyone is guilty! And exclamation marks are banned on all Buena Vista marketing materials!
Review content copyright © 2004 Diane Wild; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director and writer commentary
* Deleted scenes
* Music video