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Raising Helen

It's not surprising that a lot of people think little kids are cute. What's a little harder to understand is why some folks think annoying children are even more adorable. Leave it to schmaltzmeister Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries) to mine out this sub-demographic with Raising Helen (2004), a routine bit of cinematic dramedy that highlights the star-appeal of Kate Hudson and little else. Hudson stars as Helen Harris, a Manhattan executive assistant at the elite Dominique modeling agency, where she serves as the most-trusted assistant of the lady herself, Dominique (Helen Mirren). Helen thrives in the nightlife of Gotham, where her social status allows her to be an expert list-breaker at the end of every velvet rope. She also enjoys a good relationship with her two older sisters, Jenny (Joan Cusack) and Lindsay (Felicity Huffman). However, when Lindsay and her husband are killed in a violent car accident, the entire family is devastated. It's assumed that Jenny and her husband, already parents, will assume guardianship of Lindsay's three children (Hayden Panettiere, Spencer Breslin, Abigail Breslin). But to everyone's surprise, the guardianship is appointed to free-spirited Helen. At first, she's willing to accept the familial responsibility, even relocating to Queens and becoming a bridge-and-tunnel commuter, while enrolling the kids in a Lutheran school under the tutelage of Pastor Dan Parker (John Corbett). But parental obligations soon take their toll, and Helen's time-intensive domestic life costs her her job at Dominique, leading to employment closer to home as a car-dealership receptionst. The children, often sullen and withdrawn, frequently challenge her authority. And it's only inevitable that she has a falling out with her sister Jenny, who always believed the children should live with her. One only has to rewind back to Stanley Donen's Houseboat (1958) to see how a formula picture can temporarily derail even the greatest of movie stars. The film marked the one screen-pairing of Cary Grant and Sophia Loren (the duo had a torrid love affair off-screen as well), and yet the central premise of this commonplace sub-genre — libertine single person is suddenly thrust into parenthood — front-loaded a great deal of moribund sentimentality into a film that could have been a much lighter were the stars allowed to carry a story on their own. Perhaps it's not that children can't be funny (although it seems they rarely are in movies), or that a story of accidental parenthood can't be interesting (witness Cary Grant in one of his finest dramatic roles, Penny Serenade [1942]), or that people don't enjoy stories about well-meaning folks whose lives take unexpected turns. But any film that tries to be a romantic-comedy-with-orphans-and-life-lessons is bound to be too many things at once — Raising Helen, which clocks in at two hours (and probably 30 min. too long), tone-shifts from comedy to pathos to family drama to more comedy and then sunny romance followed by the Important Lesson We Have Just Learned: Being a mom is the most important job of all. There is no doubt that such a picture has a built-in audience; it's equally assured it will remain profitable in post-theatrical release for some time. But for those who don't think that foil-trimmed greeting cards are sublime entertainment, the chief pleasures to be found here are Kate Hudson, who's effortlessly charismatic no matter what she does, and John Corbett, who plays the Lutheran pastor love-interest without stooping to spiritual earnestness or religious caricature, but instead coming across as the sort of authentically nice guy who could make just about any girl convert. Also featuring Hector Elizondo, Larry Miller, and Paris Hilton, all uncredited. Buena Vista's DVD release of Raising Helen features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a commentary by Garry Marshall and screenwriters Beth Rigazio, Michael Begler, and Jack Amiel, six deleted scenes, a blooper reel (4 min.), and a Liz Phair music video. Keep-case.

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