PG-13 2.5 Stars I’ll get to Raising Helen in a minute. First, let’s address the obvious. You’re probably looking at this page and thinking, “What’s going on here? This Friday, The Day After Tomorrow, the most hyped movie of the year, is opening. So why is the lead review about Raising Helen?”    Well, here’s the deal. The press screening for the mega-disaster movie was set at the same time as our deadline. As a result, everyone in town will cover the film in a timely fashion except us, which is quite annoying (it’s particularly bothersome that the Zoom kids from the Star’s Weekly Reader for 20-somethings will get to review it). In years past, press screenings for major films were routinely scheduled at least a week prior to their release dates. But now the studios hold their cards much closer to the vest as the focus on opening weekend box office receipts grows ever stronger. For what it’s worth, I’ll keep complaining to the studio representatives. Bear in mind, though, that odds are against me.   And now, finally, on to Raising Helen, the latest from Garry Marshall, the man who brought us Beaches, Pretty Woman, Exit to Eden, The Other Sister, Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries and Penny Marshall. You know, I probably could stop the review now. Odds are that you read the list of his movies and decided right there whether or not you will see this one. As with several of Marshall’s other films, Raising Helen has a charming cast, numerous moments intended to make your eyes water, sitcom-style one-liners (hey, he also brought us Happy Days) and a creamy fantasy world that only looks like the one we live in.   The film, which follows a predictable story arc, is easy to take and even fun for a while, thanks to a few fine performances. Unfortunately, it drags on for two hours, about 25 minutes more than it needs, and becomes simply tiresome by the end.   Helen Harris (Kate Hudson) is a successful single New Yorker working as an assistant to the bitchy owner of a modeling agency (Helen Mirren). On weekends she visits her family: playful sister Lindsay (Felicity Huffman), her husband Paul (Sean O’Bryan) and their kids Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), Henry (Spencer Breslin) and little Sarah (Abigail Breslin) and her more traditionally maternal sister Jenny (Joan Cusack), her husband Ed (Kevin Kilner) and their brood, where they all do kicky things like donning red plastic Devo hats and dancing around to the strains of the group’s classic “Whip It.”   Then Lindsay and Paul get killed in a car wreck, leaving letters asking Helen to raise their kids. Both of the surviving siblings are flattened, but agree to the wish of their sister. In short order, Helen loses her job because of her commitments to the children and is forced to move to Queens, where she befriends a new neighbor, traditionally maternal mother Nilma (Sakina Jaffrey), and enrolls the kids in a neighborhood Lutheran school, where she meets breezy Pastor Dan (John Corbett). You can write the rest of the movie yourself.   While the direction, camerawork, editing, music and script are bland, there are pleasures in some of the performances from what must be the nicest cast ever assembled. Kate Hudson became a star with her extraordinary performance in Almost Famous, but her subsequent work has been a let-down. This film marks a noticeable upturn from her recent offerings. John Corbett continues to be pleasant and forgettable. Joan Cusack is fine as the tightly wound mama, so is Helen Mirren as the self-absorbed boss. And how good it is to see Sean O’Bryan, the apple-cheeked star of Nice Guys Sleep Alone, even if he does get snuffed early on. Sakina Jaffrey deserves praise as the supportive, baseball bat-toting mother across the hall, as does Hayden Panettiere as the most convincing teen-age girl I’ve seen on screen in quite some time.    But my favorites were young Spencer Breslin as middle-kid Henry and Kevin Kilner as Joan Cusack’s lanky, good-humored husband. Both guys are charming, funny and unique. Both have also suffered for their art. Breslin was in last year’s hideous The Cat in the Hat, and Kilner starred in Earth: Final Conflict, a hypnotically awful syndicated sci-fi series that I don’t believe anyone in America watched except for me.   To the aforementioned cast members, I tip my hat to you and thank you for supplying the good parts of Raising Helen. Oh, thanks to Devo, too.

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