[Screen It]

(2004) (Kate Hudson, John Corbett) (PG-13)

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Comedy: A single woman finds her carefree lifestyle upended when she gains custody of her late sister's three kids.
Helen Harris (KATE HUDSON) is at the top of her game. Not only does she enjoy a carefree social lifestyle, but she also has a great job working as the personal assistant to Dominique (HELEN MIRREN) at the latter's top Manhattan modeling agency.

Yet, her life is completely upended when her sister Lindsay (FELICITY HUFFMAN) and her husband Paul (SEAN O'BRYAN) are killed in a car accident. Helen is also shocked to learn that Lindsay's will dictated that the couple's three kids -- 15-year-old Audrey (HAYDEN PANETTIERE), 10-year-old Henry (SPENCER BRESLIN) and 5-year-old Sarah (ABIGAIL BRESLIN) -- go to her and not her other sister Jenny Portman (JOAN CUSACK) and her husband Ed (KEVIN KILNER), especially since they're already parents.

Nevertheless and despite knowing little about what to do, Helen sets out to raise them. The pressures of doing so, however, eventually cause her to move from Manhattan to Queens and put a strain on her work and relationship with Jenny. As her life completely changes and she becomes involved with Pastor Dan Parker (JOHN CORBETT) at the kids' new school, Helen must decide whether she wants to live this new life or return to her old one.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
In the normal world, it usually takes nine months for people to become parents the old-fashioned way, and sometimes even longer for those who adopt. For the sake of consuming time, however, movies usually consolidate those periods to fit into the normal one and a half to two hour running times.

They also like to show -- usually for comedic purposes -- that the new parents aren't ready for what they've now acquired. That's particularly true with the "sudden parent" plots where the least likely parental types suddenly find themselves with one or more kids (think of the likes of "Three Men and a Baby").

Of course, such films need to come up with a reason for the child's biological parent or parents to be out of the picture. In "Raising Helen," that's done by killing off the mom and ad via a car wreck. Yes, this is a comedy, albeit not one anywhere associated with the term "black."

That's just one of many points and elements that go terribly awry in this film from the director of "The Princess Diaries" and "Runaway Bride." In the hands of a better or at least more competent director such as Kevin Smith with his recent "Jersey Girl" (not to mention some necessary intervening years between the pivotal event and the rest of the film), the mix of comedy and tragedy can work.

Unfortunately but not altogether surprisingly, Garry Marshall mishandles that and a whole lot more with this effort. Once the parents' wake is over -- and save for a few maudlin moments scattered here and there -- the comedy and comedic melodrama quickly set in. We're then asked to believe that the kids have pretty much gotten over their parents being taken from their lives and them being uprooted from both their home and school.

Marshall and screenwriters Jack Amiel & Michael Begler ("The Prince & Me") simply don't know what to do with the material. That is, except for managing to deliver a predictable, formulaic and messy offering that's the epitome of bad. Uneven, sloppy and episodic, this is less a coherent picture than a lesson in what not to do when trying to a make a comedy.

There's never a doubt that the protagonist will be flustered, the kids will be cute when not annoying, and that both will help each other grow in one way or another. Of course, the adult will end up doing more of that than the children do. Possibly because of that or maybe just a fault all its own, the film's dramatic moments -- when the main character struggles to make a go at her new life and must put up with her other sister who's jealous and/or mad that she wasn't the one given custody of the three kids -- similarly don't work.

While less discerning viewers might get wrapped up in the "heartwarming" dramedy mix, all of the various faults resulted in me never caring about any of the characters or their predicaments. And that's despite a decent cast embodying the characters. Kate Hudson ("Le Divorce," "Alex and Emma") certainly has the ability to light up the screen, but once again, and all thanks to the weak script, she fails to live up to the acting precedent she set in "Almost Famous."

Wasted even more is the fabulous Joan Cusack ("The School of Rock," "High Fidelity") who appears as the other sister, a pregnant mom who knows her way around the child-rearing ropes. Other than a brief funny bit near the end of the film when she lets an older teenage boy have it regarding his amorous interest in the oldest child, she can't do anything with her character.

John Corbett plays the love interest pretty much like he's done in "Sex and the City" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" (albeit with a pastorally slant), but the chemistry between his and Hudson's character feels too forced. Helen Mirren ("Calendar Girls," "Gosford Park") isn't around enough to do anything as Helen's boss, and Hayden Panettiere ("Joe Somebody," "Remember the Titans") plays a standard-issue rebellious teen. Siblings Spencer ("The Cat in the Hat," "The Santa Clause 2") and Abigail Breslin ("Signs") play the younger brother and sister and are okay but otherwise unremarkable in their roles. Marshall stalwarts Hector Elizondo and Larry Miller again return in brief parts.

I'm sure there will be those who enjoy this film, particularly if they've liked Marshall's previous style of comedy. For me, the plot and direction are simply far too weak and messy to get any sort of enjoyment out of this offering. Forced, misguided and too predictable, "Raising Helen" arrived with lowered expectations and certainly had no problem meeting them. The film rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed April 26, 2004 / Posted May 28, 2004

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