- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

There are two “Helen” movies out right now, one about those epic battles in ancient Troy, this latest a modern tragicomedy starring the tragically perky Kate Hudson.

“Raising Helen,” the Kate Hudson tragicomedy, felt only slightly shorter than “Troy’s” three hours.

Kate Hudson movies are not supposed to be this long. She’s supposed to do her crinkly-cute, smiley-blond thing; we’re supposed to go “awww”; and the entire affair is supposed to be over in an inoffensive, risk-free 90 minutes.

Not “Raising Helen,” a skittery, soggy, painfully unfunny movie.

A couple of story-pitchers, another pair of screenwriters and director Garry Marshall combined wits for this family-turmoil comedy, which force-feeds after-school seriousness and dispatches life problems like typos. It also takes religion for a breezy walk in the park, with disastrous results — but more on that in a minute.

Helen Harris (Miss Hudson) is a carefree New York socialite moving up the ladder at a sharky modeling agency headed by Helen Mirren’s Dominque. She smokes cigarettes, she club hops, she takes home some of the agency’s fresh-meat hunks. (Mr. Marshall’s PG-13 camera never follows her past the apartment door, though.)

Occasionally, on weekends, Helen slips over to the Jersey ‘burbs, where older sisters Jenny (Joan Cusack) and Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) have upper-middle class husbands, lawns, driveways and children.

Lindsay and Helen have a special, impenetrable bond: they both love the Devo song “Whip It,” for example, and Jenny has always felt left out. Jenny is uptight and control-freakish; hence the casting of the dependably uptight Miss Cusack, who played a similar character in last year’s “The School of Rock.”

The tragic part of the movie happens when Helen, at her favorite upscale eatery, receives a phone call: Lindsay and husband have been killed in a car accident.

After the wake, Helen gets another shocker: Lindsay had chosen her to be guardian to orphans Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), Henry (Spencer Breslin) and Sarah (Spencer’s real-life sister Abigail, who appeared in “Signs”).

Jenny is indignant, Helen overwhelmed and unprepared.

Now, right away, you know where “Helen” is headed and how it will resolve: Helen will stumble and fall; she’ll hit something like rock bottom; and then she’ll be redeemed. Everyone will group hug, and each of the children will overcome the miniaturized crises the movie assigns them.

There’s nothing wrong with that; the trick is how to get there.

Will “Helen,” like “Mr. Mom” or “Mrs. Doubtfire,” be clever in form, if not in formula?

Let me spare you two hours and 10 bucks: No.

Each haphazard scene — from the downgraded apartment hunt in Queens to the shoelace-tying lessons with little Sarah — is hurried and chopped off. It’s as though everyone knew the movie wasn’t funny in the editing room and said, “Enough. Next. Let’s get outta here.”

Where “Helen” really bungles things is in the redemption department. With a naughtily literal mind, Helen is given a romantic foil in pastor Dan (John Corbett), the handsome young principal at the Lutheran school where Helen places the children.

With Helen put off by the idea of dating a clergyman, pastor Dan uses this line to win her over: “I’m a sexy man of God, and you know it.”

She buys it.

You won’t.

*

TITLE: “Raising Helen”

RATING: PG-13 (Melodramatic themes of teen turmoil)

CREDITS: Directed by Garry Marshall. Produced by Ashok Armritraj and David Hoberman. Story by Patrick J. Clifton and Bethany Ragazio. Screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Cinematography by Charles Minsky and Michael Stone. Original music by John Debney.

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes

WEB SITE: www.raising-helen.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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