What in the world were the filmmakers thinking? "Raising Helen," the 2004 movie from director Garry Marshall ("The Flamingo Kid," "Overboard," "Pretty Woman," "Runaway Bride," "The Princess Diaries"), is on the face of it a romantic comedy. At least that's the way it's promoted. But it begins with the deaths of several loved ones, their funeral, and the continued grieving by those they left behind. I mean, is this any way to start a romantic comedy, by having the audience practically in tears?
It's this kind of misguided premise that informs the entire picture. Instead of being either romantic or comedic, it's generally solemn, preachy, and depressing. If it were trying to be a dramatic slice of life, it doesn't work, either, because surrounding the solemnity is an air of lighthearted frivolity. Frankly, the film doesn't know which way it's going.
The always bubbly, effervescent Kate Hudson stars in a wholly manipulative plot as a young Manhattan fashion executive, Helen Harris, on the way up, a go-getter, a bright, hip, young, single swinger with ambition, working for one of New York's top modeling agencies, the assistant to the president. She knows all the right people, goes to all the right clubs, signs all the right fashion celebrities. Then, disaster strikes, literally. Her sister and brother-in-law are killed in an automobile accident, and their will assigns her guardianship of their three children. Contrary to any kind of logic, Helen accepts the responsibility, which, of course, turns her life upside down.
But what a cheap and contrived way to place a single woman in the situation of having to raise three kids just to show the conflicts that develop. The audience is made to endure the pain of Helen's and the kids' suffering simply for the sake of the filmmakers milking a few laughs. Well, no, that isn't fair, because the movie is not really the romantic comedy we were led to believe. It's a drippy, maudlin, melodramatic, semi-romantic, sometimes comedy that tries to make us laugh and cry at the same time and then ends up with a big life lesson at the finish, all while its disparate elements are working against one another and against us.
The children Helen inherits are Audrey, Henry, and Sarah, played by Hayden Panettiere, Spencer Breslin, and Abigail Breslin. Each of them has his or her troubles, but the biggest pain is fifteen-year-old Audrey, who has to be kept from smoking, using a fake ID, and running after every boy she sees. It's hard for Helen to do anything about her, though, because she sympathizes so much Audrey's whims and needs. Moreover, Helen is constantly reminded about her new motherly responsibilities by her older sister, Jenny (Joan Cusack), an ultraconservative suburban mom.
In fact, the movie's title, "Raising Helen," is probably the best thing about it, a play on a variety of things, including Helen's having been raised by Jenny after the premature death of their own mother; Helen's needing to be raised by the kids since she is essentially a child herself; and a variation on the phrase "raising hell," because, well, Helen used to raise a good deal of it and now finds her altered lifestyle rather hellish. When the title is the best part of the movie, you know you're in trouble.
So where does the "romance" come in? Barely, but it arrives the form of the kids' new school principal, the Reverend Dan Parker, played by John Corbett. Reverend Dan, not to be confused with Lieutenant Dan, is a handsome, single, totally charming fellow who immediately takes an interest in Helen, although Helen is much too busy to take any immediate interest in Dan. It's never made clear why Dan has remained single for so long, or why he takes such an immediate interest in Helen, beyond her good looks. Next to the title, Corbett is the best thing about the film, sparkling, witty, always sweet and courteous, but, more important, a dominating, charismatic screen presence. Why isn't this guy starring in more things of his own? And why didn't the script give him more to do here than stand around waiting for Helen to notice him?
An uncredited Hector Elizondo plays Helen's new employer, a used-car dealer ("previously owned vehicles," if you please), when Helen loses her job at the model agency. Elizondo is such an old hand at comedy, his just showing up can make a scene funny. He got the first of only two laughs from me during a TV commercial he's trying to shoot.
Also in the cast is Helen Mirren, pretty much wasted as the tough, unflappable, purely business-minded fashion-agency owner, a domineering woman with an icy demeanor. Her role is a thankless job that evokes neither laughs nor pity but a good deal of contempt.
Anyway, the sisters fight about who should be raising the kids, the kids act as sweetly obnoxious as they possibly can, and the whole movie gets more sappy and annoying as it goes along. With the exception of "Pretty Woman," director Marshall seems to know how to make only one kind of movie, and it's always a throwback to the bland situation comedies he started with on television. "Raising Helen" is no exception.
Buena Vista engineers have done everything they could to preserve the film's appearance on DVD. They gave it an enhanced, anamorphic transfer; they maintained its theatrical exhibition size, measuring approximately 1.77:1 across my standard-screen TV; and they utilized a high bit rate in the process. The results show in the film's sparkling colors, its rich, deep contrasts, and its general lack of grain, halos, or moiré effects. However, the film's colors were probably pretty bright to begin with, and I found them a bit too flamboyant to be entirely natural. The hues are brilliant and vibrant, if a touch too glassy and dark, especially flesh tones, and in spite of their beauty they don't look like the world I see around me.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound doesn't do much in the surrounds, not even in offering much ambient reinforcement in musical passages. Nevertheless, it is fine in the front channels, where it conveys dialogue easily and realistically. Dynamics are ordinary, though, and frequency extremes are limited. In all, the movie sounds like a good, modern, stereo TV broadcast.
In addition to the ordinary sonics, the extras on the disc are of the ordinary and expected variety, too. First, there's the required audio commentary, this one with director Garry Marshall and writers Beth Rigazio, Michael Begler, and Jack Amiel. Marshall acts like a head cheerleader, practically shouting at us, while the other three are relatively restrained. Then, there's a four-minute bloopers reel; followed by six deleted scenes and outtakes, with Marshall's commentary; and a music video, "Extraordinary," with Liz Phair. The disc's bonus items conclude with some Sneak Peeks at several other Buena Vista releases; twelve scene selections (BV continues to be stingy in this department); English and French spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
Kate Hudson has a load of talent, but like her mother she may be tossing a lot of it away on frothy TV-type dramas that are neither fish nor fowl. You may remember her two previous films were the disastrous "Alex and Emma" and then "Le Divorce," which like "Raising Helen" was promoted as a romantic comedy but was in actuality a Parisian soap opera. "Raising Helen" does not appear to me a film that might interest fans of romance, comedy, or drama. It goes nowhere.