½*/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C
starring Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack, Hayden Panettiere
screenplay by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler
directed by Garry Marshall
by Walter Chaw I made a promise to myself after The Other Sister to never watch another Garry Marshall film, but I guess I don't have enough self-respect. Raising Helen is repellent in the way of roadside carrion: it just sort of lies there stinking, making it hard to find the energy to attack it. (Something about beating dead horses and all that.) To endure Raising Helen is to surrender to the quintessence of that which is wrong with our culture, to the definition of a term like "disposable culture," and to the self-knowledge that what you really want from your entertainment is the comfortable affirmation of schmaltzy emotions provoked countless times before by countless identical romantic comedies. Going to this movie is the equivalent of giving up on an intellectual and emotional life. Raising Helen will only appeal to and attract people with pathologically little patience for films that challenge them in any way, that elicit genuine reactions and are thus threatening for their potential to penetrate the carefully constructed layers of numb denial that make unexamined lives liveable--films that provide anything like insight into any level of existential verity. It is the lowest rung on the escapist ladder, representative of some wholly self-contained fantasy world where the racial make-up of Queens is 99% WASP and 1% quirky East Indian, and where Kate Hudson's incandescent choppers are Leading Lady material.
Helen (Hudson) isn't an advertising executive or a magazine editor, making Raising Helen distinct for its ability to discern the mid-point between the two most popular rom-com professions--no, Helen is a modeling agency rep, and one of the three sisters from Hanging Up, the young and sassy one. When the discreet death of her older sassy sister (Felicity Huffman) leaves three central-casting moppets orphaned, Helen must learn to put her perfectly waxed and pedicured hoof down while earning the respect of her other demented sister, the singularly unlikeable Jenny (Joan Cusack). Why Marshall, who has never for a moment demonstrated any kind of empathy for female characters, is constantly entrusted with films that focus on womanhood is an astonishingly eloquent statement about the sexism in the industry that prevents most women directors in this country from ever doing anything worthwhile. If they don't even get the obvious projects, those turned down by Nancy Myers and Nora Ephron, for instance, what hope is there in the mainstream jungle?
Carted off to an inner city Lutheran private school presided over by wet-cardboard hunk Pastor Dan (John Corbett), the three children are budding sex kitten Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), hideously unlikeable Spencer Breslin-esque Flintstone Henry (Spencer Breslin), and sad-eyed waif Sara (Abigail Breslin--yes, there's another one). Love is in the air as fast as you can say "musical montage," predictable and predictably timed complications arise as fast as you can say "another musical montage," and all of it's tied up cozily in a midnight drive in the rain as the heroine realizes she's made some sort of a terrible mistake. It's the distaff version of I Am Sam, with Helen playing the simple-minded parent and the kids playing the precocious brood, bursting with READER'S DIGEST wit and wisdom and offering the stunningly misguided twist that doughy Spencer Breslin both loves and excels at sports. Raising Helen should be rated by one of those toxic materials symbols.
No character is developed into three dimensions, every emotional reaction is underscored by reaction shots only occasionally comprehensible in the context of the scene (I wouldn't have been surprised to see reaction inserts comprised wholly of characters from other films), and every plot development unfolds with the flat, inexorable, predatory articulation of a Venus Flytrap contracting around a hapless nit. Hudson gives the best Julia Roberts performance since Marshall's own Pretty Woman, mistaking a great smile for depth and sentience, while Cusack, a gifted comedian saddled with a role that is the equivalent of a toothless Martha Stewart with severe partem dementia, occasionally appears human in her conflicted reaction to being better than this movie and finally needing to accept roles like these because "quirky comic sidekick" is a part she's doomed to play eternally.
Consider that Raising Helen is a film directed by a man from a screenplay written by two men, aimed solely at an imaginary demographic of women so emotionally stunted and silly that inert compost like this would please them. It's the heart-warming version of Enough: a film with no heart, no brain, and no courage that perceives a formula worth exploiting for a few bucks and inserts the starlet of the hour hoping against hope that her stock doesn't plummet before the film is released (whoops)--one we can safely assume will find itself a modest money-maker in its bargain barter of a few ugly dollars for a handful of souls. I'm sick to death of Raising Helen and its ilk, and when four people left about thirty minutes into the free screening, I marked that sharp pang of jealousy and yearning as the only time in the picture I felt anything besides weariness. Originally published: May 28, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Touchstone releases Raising Helen on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions with identical supplements. We can only vouch for the former, which presents the film in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that lacks the smudginess of other recent Touchstone product, such as Hidalgo or The Alamo. But then, Raising Helen's movie-of-the-week camerawork wouldn't exactly pose a lot of challenges for the telecine operators, would it? The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is drably defectless as well, clear as day but aggressively undistinguished. While there's a hint of LFE activity in a nightclub scene, Garry Marshall seems all but allergic to ambience. Marshall contributes one of his typically gushy commentaries on another track, where he's joined by writers Jack Amiel, Michael Belger, and Beth Rigazio (who, as the lone female presence in the appendices for this "chick flick," disappointingly comes off as the shrinking violet of the group) to make it a love-in. If the quartet is refreshingly flip about the movie, every time Marshall points out, say, a continuity error, you wonder where those powers of perception were when he really needed them.
Marshall also provides video bookends--and a menu-embedded video introduction!--to five deleted scenes, six counting an outtake in which Marshall himself appears; though cut for pacing, they're so paradigmatic that it's hard to imagine Marshall mustering the will to even shoot them. (He prefaces the second elision with "It's the cooking scene where you don't cook so well.") Notable for a blink-and-miss cameo from Marshall's sister Penny, a 5-minute outtakes reel rounds out the platter along with the video for "Extraordinary" by a post-lobotomy Liz Phair and "sneak peeks" at National Security, the Mulan Special Edition, The Young Black Stallion, "Felicity - Season Three", "Popular - Season One", Around the World in 80 Days (2004), and "Hope & Faith - Season One", the first three of which cue up automatically upon insertion of the disc. Originally published: October 12, 2004.
119 minutes; PG-13; 1.85:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; CC; French, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Touchstone