The title character, as played by Kate Hudson, is a likable socialite on the verge of being promoted from executive assistant to agent at a posh New York modeling agency. The youngest of three sisters, she loves her gaggle of nieces and nephews but exhibits no interest in yielding her freewheeling lifestyle for the domesticity that has claimed eldest sister Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) and once-again-preggers middle sister Jenny (Joan Cusack). Then tragedy strikes as Lindsay and her husband die in an auto accident, leaving their three children--hormonal 15-year-old Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), precocious and droll 10-year-old Henry (Spencer Breslin) and needy five-year-old Sarah (Abigail Breslin)--parentless. Both remaining sisters naturally expect Jenny to get custody of the kids, but as per Lindsay's "in the event of untimely death" wishes, it's Helen who gets the assignment.
At this point it should be acknowledged that Garry Marshall basically makes fairy tales--some more obvious than others ("Pretty Woman," "The Princess Diaries")--but all built from the same component parts. Any parallelism with 1987's "Overboard," in which Hudson's mother, Goldie Hawn, follows much the same trajectory that Hudson does here, should be seen as purely incidental since nearly all of Marshall's films hew to the "Cinderella" paradigm in some respect. Unfortunately, "Raising Helen" suffocates itself by latching on to another familiar formula popularized by such films as "Three Men and a Baby," in which adults who never really grew up are forced to do so via the responsibilities of sudden parenthood. Faced with the constraints of not one but two heavily formulaic genres, "Raising Helen" simply feels too much like a template and not enough like a story.
It's all particularly frustrating knowing that the elements for a better film are all in place. Hudson, Cusack and the children are all excellent, as is everyone's favorite nice guy of the moment, John Corbett, as the sexy Lutheran Pastor who takes a liking to the beleaguered Helen. It's the script--which went through the hands of two writing teams--that simply can't untangle itself fast enough to let Marshall and his actors excel at what they do best. Only in the final half-hour, when the film becomes less concerned with adherence to rigid screenplay seminar structuralism and more interested in the lives of its characters--particularly the children--does it begin to really feel like a proper Garry Marshall movie of old. Had Marshall been able to generate a 90-minute movie that more closely resembled the last quarter of this one, he might have had a certifiable hit on his hands.
Despite its problems, "Raising Helen" does score points for tackling serious topics related to the raising of teenagers and pre-teens, catering to a more mature family demographic that Hollywood typically prefers to ignore. Even if it fails to find its audience on wide release, it's a safe bet that "Raising Helen" will eventually find it on DVD. Starring Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack, Hayden Panettiere, Spencer Breslin and Abigail Breslin. Directed by Garry Marshall. Written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Produced by Ashok Amitraj and David Hoberman. A Buena Vista release. Comedy/Drama. Rated PG-13 for thematic issues involving teens. Running time: 119 min