“Raising Helen” is a pleasant, yet very predictable romantic comedy starring America’s sweetheart and brand new mom, Kate Hudson. Hudson plays Helen Harris, a carefree party girl whose life is instantly transformed when she becomes the guardian of three young children. Will she change and accept the role of super mom or will she revert to her old ways? Directed by Garry Marshall, better known for “Pretty Woman” and “The Princess Diaries,” the film touches on the positive aspects of family, responsibility, and the maturation of a parent while avoiding many of the inherent hardships that new parents encounter. It’s parenthood through rose-colored glasses, whimsical fare in the same vane as an after school special.
Helen Harris has the perfect job for a young, ambitious, and outgoing woman. She’s an executive assistant for a top modeling agency in New York, spending her days at fashion shows, dancing her nights away at exclusive clubs, and always available round the clock to answer questions from her clientele or make suggestions to her frou-frou boss, Dominique. But all of that is about to change. In an unexpected twist of fate, Helen’s oldest sister and brother-in-law are involved in a fatal accident, leaving their three children behind. And according to her sister’s will, the children must be entrusted with Helen, despite her lack of motherly experience.
Initially, Helen tries to maintain her same lifestyle, her apartment, and her career. But after many unsuccessful attempts at juggling schedules and clients, she fails. In particular, she has a hard time convincing her boss to keep her when the job requires frequent travel and time commitments. Thus, Helen sacrifices everything. In keeping with her sister’s wishes, she moves into a run-down apartment in Queens, she enrolls the children in a Lutheran school nearby, and she finds work as a receptionist at a used car dealership. Fortunately, she’s not alone. Supporting her in her newfound role as mom are her sister Jenny, her neighbor Nilma, and the friendly principal at the kid’s school, Pastor Dan.
Yet even with their careful guidance, Helen must ultimately navigate through the pitfalls by herself and learn to be less like the cool aunt and more like the assertive, authoritative mother. Can she do it? Or will she give in and allow her sister to raise the kids? It all comes down to a decision between the ones in need of her love and the life that she loved.
“Raising Helen” is your typical fluff film, glossed over with a shiny surface. Rich with clichés, predictability, and happily ever afters, the story never ever leaves its comfort zone to challenge the characters and their relationships, to create tension or conflict, or to throw in the proverbial plot twist. Instead, everything goes according to spec as if the story were copied directly from a screenwriting template. The heroine is happy, comfortable, and self-assured. The heroine is thrown a dramatic change in lifestyle. Sprinkle in a little doubt and disarray. Next, a breezy romantic interest. Then, one final test and resolution before cutting to the happy ending.
Part of the problem is that Helen is given a Plan B. If she cannot take care of the children appropriately or successfully, her sister Jenny can step in and raise them. This relationship alone is damaging to the film’s core. Knowing this at the beginning of the film negates any act of desperation or motivation for survival. There are no risks inherent in the storyline, which in turn, kills any empathy we might have toward Helen. If all else fails, give the kids to Jenny. The second part of the problem is that when any remote signs of conflict, distress, or sadness appear, there’s always someone else to conveniently take the load. Helen never has to lift a finger. Her neighbor carries the bat and chases teenagers out of her apartment, her sister Jenny confronts Audrey’s boyfriend at a hotel after prom, and Pastor Dan takes everyone to the zoo when they need cheering up. Heck, raising three kids in New York is a piece of cake!
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with painting a pretty picture. Just look at Marshall’s “Pretty Woman.” In that film, Julia Roberts plays a prostitute who is swept away by a wealthy and lonely businessman. Smartly mixing comedy with romance, the film never strays too far from reality. Can people change? Can different people with different backgrounds fall in love? Yes, but not without consequences, shedding some tears, agonizing over bad decisions, and occasionally swallowing one’s pride. While “Pretty Woman” was reality with fairy tale mixed in, “Raising Helen” is more of a fairy tale with little reality mixed in. In the film, Helen does not break down into tears during her struggle, money does not appear to be an issue or a cause for stress, the kids never put up a fuss, job and apartment shopping are easy, and the lingering effects of losing a mother and father are practically transparent.
Fortunately, the film survives because of the bubbly persona of Kate Hudson. Much like her mother, Goldie Hawn, Kate is adorable, vivacious, and able to light up any scene with her presence. Whether it’s “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Alex and Emma,” or the quiet “Le Divorce,” Hudson is quickly becoming the queen of light, romantic fare just like her mother. Although she can carry a film by herself and make the drab, interesting; it’s a disappointment to see her reduced to these conforming roles instead of those along the lines of Penny Lane from “Almost Famous,” which highlight her range and reveal depth beyond mere beauty.
“Raising Helen” is a prototypical romantic comedy with so much conformity that it fails to equate to anything more than a pleasant diversion. Without genuine conflict, risk, or reality, there is not much to cling to or care about. Of least concern is Helen, who coasts through life worry free, and who has a supporting cast conveniently smoothing out the rough edges. Simple and conventional, this summer breeze won’t knock you completely overboard.