Thursday, May 27, 2004

Custody's last stand

Movie: Raising Helen

Posted on Thu, May 27, 2004 at 4:00 AM

***
Our Rating: 3.00

Only slightly more than another excuse to shake your head and remark that Kate Hudson really could have been something once, the latest Garry Marshall comedy ping-pongs back and forth between an approximation of pith and shameless, Family Circus-style treacle.

Hudson plays Helen Harris, an executive assistant at a modeling agency, whose selfish life trajectory is forever altered when she's named the guardian of her late sister's three kids (including Spencer Breslin of Disney's The Kid). As a third sister who resents Helen's unearned responsibility – and being passed over for the privilege herself – Joan Cusack is back to taking thankless Joan Cusack roles. That's highly appropriate, given that most of the film could just as easily be taking place in 1989 as 2004. The biggest concession to modernity is the sisters' nostalgic fondness for Devo: They even bust out the red Jell-O molds for a living-room rendition of the hoary "Whip It." At least Marshall's girls get the point of the song better than most of the skinny-tie wearers of the era, who just thought it was about kinky sex.

Still, the movie's marshmallow heart is best conveyed in a montage that sees the reconfigured clan enjoying an outing to the zoo while Simon and Garfunkel warble deathlessly on the music track. You gotta be kiddin', you're thinking, but maybe it's better that the flick stay saccharine, given what happens when it tries to be daring. The most squirm-worthy moments come from a neighborhood pastor (John Corbett), whose persistent courtship of Helen reaches its nadir when he tells her how sexy he is. Eeeeeew.

Hudson is cute in an eager, I'm-all-washed-up kind of way, and Marshall shows restraint in making his characters only as witty as people we genuinely might encounter in the so-called real world. The avoidance of lightning-quick repartee is actually refreshing – unless you're adamant that movie dialogue be cleverer than what you can hear outside for free. In that case, subtract a star.

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