Release Date:  May 28, 2004
Rating:  PG-13 (for thematic issues involving teens)
Genre:  Comedy/Drama
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director:  Garry Marshall
Actors: Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack, Helen Mirren, Amber Valletta, Felicity Huffman, Hector Elizondo

Garry Marshall is a great director – when he gets the right script. Too bad that hasn’t happened with “Raising Helen.” 

Helen Harris (Kate Hudson) treats life like a party. With a glamorous job as a top New York modeling agent, she dances away her nights, enjoys one-night stands and doesn’t worry about the future. Then a tragic accident leaves her with custody of her sister’s three children. In addition to changing her lifestyle and learning to parent grieving children, Helen must also cope with the hurt and confusion of her older sister, Jenny (Joan Cusack), who was passed over as guardian. A pregnant mother of two, Jenny lacks Helen’s outgoing, fun-filled personality, so the sisters clash.

Marshall has a solid history as a writer, for “The Lucille Ball Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “the Odd Couple,” among others. He created “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” then went on to direct the recent “Runaway Bride” and “The Princess Diaries.” Too bad he didn’t pen this script, which is so formulaic I was worried my old math teacher might appear.

The dialogue has rare moments of creativity (“We are not bridge and tunnel people”) amid mostly bad ones (“Nobody ever said it would be easy”). The film moves slowly, with long stretches that have little or no action, yet the climax happens so quickly you almost miss it. Hudson has inherited her looks and mannerisms from gorgeous Goldie Hawn – but she has yet to develop her mother’s talent. She started off her career with a bang in “Almost Famous,” but went quickly downhill. In “Raising Helen,” she shows so little emotion that we just don’t sympathize with her plight. Marshall obviously understands this, because he pulls the camera up and away from her when he should be showing us her acting skills – at the very moment Helen learns of her sister’s death.

Cusack, on the other hand, has the skills, but seems adrift in her role. We keep hearing what a fabulous mother she is, but she’s every kid’s worst nightmare. Her best scene is at the motel, where she threatens the boyfriend, teaching him a little respect. Go, Soccer Mom!

This film contains lots of cigarette smoking (Helen chain-smokes), drinking, a nightclub scene, teens in a motel room, a handful of mild obscenities (including one from a child) and implied sex between Helen and a male model. She’s hardly the role model – even at the end of the film, after her “transformation.” She lies to a school principal, in front of the kids, insisting that they are Lutheran when they are not. She lies again to avoid blood tests. And, Pastor Dan (John Corbett), while mostly a strong Christian figure, makes the disturbing comment that Lutheran pastors are allowed to “date, marry and watch dirty movies,” then corrects himself, joking, “Well, not dirty movies – but we’re pushing for it.”

My biggest beef with this movie is the negative message it sends about Christian dating. Pastor Dan has no qualms whatsoever about dating, kissing and spending lots of sexy alone time with Helen in her apartment. Yet Helen is not a Christian and shows no interest in the faith, making it appear that a relationship between the two, and even a marriage, is acceptable. Believers, however, are commanded to be “equally yolked” with other believers, and this is all the more important for leaders and pastors. Those not familiar with the way that faith shapes (or should) every aspect of our lives see this command as exclusionary. Rather, it is indicative of how deeply God, our Creator, understands the deepest longings of our hearts. If Christ lives in us, guiding us in all that we think, say and do, we must be able to share that with our spouse. 

The film’s portrayal of a Protestant pastor also stumbles. “So what’s the Lutheran take on the afterlife?” Henry asks Pastor Dan. “Heaven, Hell, Purgatory?” Dan answers, “That’s pretty much it.” Wrong, Dan. Do not pass Go. Return immediately to Sunday School. Lutherans do not believe in Purgatory.

On the surface, the message of “Raising Helen” is that mothering is more important than anything else we could pursue in life, including career. Dig a little deeper, however, and a second message about motherhood emerges – one that contradicts the first. At the end of the day, it is Helen, a working mother – not Jenny, the stay-at-home, big-house-in-the-‘burbs mom – who is shown to be the best mother for the kids. So ultimately, according to the film, the best mom is the one who can somehow manage career and home. This message is mitigated by scenes that show how hard it is to do both, but the film clearly implies that single mothers are far better than couples (even happily married, loving, experienced parents). Despite Cusack’s eccentricity, I had a hard time buying this.

Overall, this film was a huge disappointment. Wait for the video, if you must. Better still, rent Diane Keaton’s 1987 classic, “Baby Boom.” Same plot, but with a great script and great acting. And no fake pastors.

OBJECTIONABLE CONTENT:
"Raising Helen"

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