Film: Pretty Dull Woman

Kate Hudson's shine fails to carry heavy Raising Helen

May 26, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Actress Kate Hudson, paired with John Corbett, flashes her most dimply smiles in director Garry Marshall's romantic comedy Raising Helen.

The corny '80s catchphrase that best suits Garry Marshall, director of female-friendly hits like Pretty Woman and Beaches, is this: It's better to look good than to feel good.

Marshall's latest film, the Kate Hudson vehicle Raising Helen, is a romantic comedy that's dreadfully light on comedy. There's also not much romance. Yet, Marshall's bread-and-butter genre, dating back to his days directing TV classics Happy Days and Mork and Mindy, was comedy. It's tragically surprising that Marshall fails to insert a few good laughs into the otherwise downer Raising Helen script. Then again, Marshall and Hudson probably didn't think they were making a comedy. The premise behind Raising Helen is that glum.

Helen Harris (Hudson) is a carefree twentysomething, living her dream life at a modeling agency in New York City. She parties; she knows famous people; she goes clubbing until the wee small hours.

Helen manages to stay connected with her older sisters despite her wild ways.

Jenny (Joan Cusack) is a no-frills homemaker whose maternal instincts tend to get in the way of her other relationships. Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) relates more to Helen's carefree lifestyle but is also raising children of her own.

It's no spoiler, given the film's marketing, that tragedy befalls the family, and they are forced to address custody issues for Lindsay's three kids. Surprising to everyone, Helen is given custody, forcing her to readdress her priorities.

Raising Helen (written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler) contains a smorgasbord of familial issues — sibling rivalry, single-parenthood and childhood grief — none of them great material for comedy.

Don't be fooled by Hudson's pratfalls in the Raising Helen commercials and coming-attraction trailers. This is not a feel-good comedy, although it should be. Physical gags are not Hudson's strong suit. She is at her best when she flashes a giggly smile.

Marshall launched Julia Roberts to stardom with Pretty Woman, but he fails miserably with Hudson. Granted, Marshall tries, surrounding Hudson with glamorous camera angles and soft-focus photography, but Helen just isn't a showstopper.

As Penny Lane, the teenage Rock groupie in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, Hudson was a beautiful mystery. She oozed charm and drew favorable comparisons to her equally charismatic mother Goldie Hawn, in her starlet years. Crowe's script managed to show William (Patrick Fugit) fall in love with Penny on screen, but the audience fell for her, too.

Watching Raising Helen, you're convinced that Hudson will never find another part as good as Penny Lane, or a director who understands her strengths as well as Crowe.

In the film, Helen goes from spoiled playgirl to morose caregiver in the span of an hour. This isn't a character you fall for; she's someone you pity. And one should simply not pity Kate Hudson, period. Despite some weeper scenes and emotional speeches, Hudson shows her dramatic limits in Raising Helen.

Cusack fares better, having mastered the "older sister" character by now. Her Jenny, while fairly unsympathetic, at least feels real and unforced. As Helen's love interest, Pastor Dan (John Corbett) displays the quiet confidence that won him hearts from his Sex and the City days. Despite spewing out terrible lines like, "I'm a sexy man of God and I know it," Corbett walks away from this movie unharmed. One hopes he gets past this sensitive new-man phase in his career.

As for Marshall, he can't be totally faulted for this misstep. He didn't write Raising Helen's substandard script. He probably thought smart casting would make up for it. It doesn't. Of course, once Raising Helen fades from memory, Marshall's latest film in the Princess Diaries franchise comes out. Bad movies don't stick to Marshall. He just keeps working.

Raising Helen ends on a necessary up beat, but happy endings (especially one as predictable as this) can't mask 90 minutes of lulling melodrama. Nor can charming actors make up for thinly drawn characters.

This film will benefit as counter-programming in the loud, action summer movie season. But in this case, explosions are much preferred to Raising Helen's teary mush. Grade: D