Sitting through Raising Helen is an exercise in frustration, because somewhere inside this big heap of Hollywood nothing is a something (someone, actually) worth saving and savoring. Her name is Joan Cusack, always a supporting player but never a star, no matter her grace and warmth and charm even in the tiniest of parts; she's like a session musician who makes every record she's on sound a little better, indispensable but also inexplicably anonymous. The title of her moribund ABC sitcom said it all: What About Joan.
Here, trapped inside a glib and predictable story about how it takes a child to nurture an adult, Cusack plays a woman who was essentially a mother since she was a little girl, when her own mom died and left her to raise an older sister who left home and a younger one who never stayed at home. Now that she is older, Cusack's Jenny is still the middle child -- forgotten and left to play by herself while everyone fawns over the pretty sister, played by Kate Hudson, one of those prefab movie stars who, the more we see of her, the less we care for her. Hudson, in films such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and About Adam and Alex and Emma, more and more comes off like a medium talent; she all but disappears in the scenes she shares with Cusack.
There's not an original thought or sincere bone in Raising Helen's body -- or, more accurately, Hudson's body, which is spread across the movie's poster like some soft-core come-on or an advertisement for the Ugg boots she's wearing. You've seen this movie before, when it was called Jersey Girl or Baby Boom, in which a go-go exec's life is turned catawampus by the unexpected arrival of a child, either their own or someone else's, apparently because no one in these movies has ever heard of a nanny.
Hudson's Helen is the prototypical protagonist of these stories: a hottie-to-trot single girl living the Manhattan high life as a modeling agency rep (she works for Helen Mirren, and rarely has someone so wonderful been so wasted). Her life is thrown into chaos when her sister Lindsay (Felicity Huffman, late of Sports Night) and brother-in-law die in a car crash during the movie's first ten minutes. Helen's older sister Jenny expects to get Audrey and Henry, the kids; she's already a mother herself, after all. But Lindsay has left the three kids with Helen, who's no more qualified than a fungus to raise children.
Nonetheless, she takes on the chore, first by moving the children out of the suburbs and into the outer boroughs of New York, then by enrolling them in an Episcopalian private school run by Pastor Dan (another mayo-on-white-bread role for John Corbett), then by taking a job in a used-car lot run by Hector Elizondo. Helen has no idea how to raise children since she's pretty much one herself, by her own admission. She was once Audrey's confidante -- they giggled over fake I.D. cards and shared girlie secrets -- but now that Helen has to play mommy, she's lost; she can't even yell at the child when she has a dozen friends over for a late-night makeout throwdown. How ever will they work it out?
By doing what all lazy movies do: staging fights and emotional breakdowns that end with phony hugs, trying to make us cry and then tickling us into a stupid grin. One character says the kids are haunted by the death of the parents and that Henry especially has become sullen and distant and taken to drawing skulls in his notepad. But we never see that Henry; we're shown only a happy, goofy kid who seems dropped in from another story line no one else in the film's actually talking about.
But nothing makes any sense in a movie that appears to have been edited using kiddie scissors and masking tape. Garry Marshall's movies (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries) have always been phony fairy tales, and also clumsy ones, but this one feels especially dunderheaded. It's shallow and obvious, so totally dishonest you keep reaching back in your seat to make sure it didn't lift your wallet.
Worse, it strands its only intriguing character -- Cusack's Jenny -- on the sideline and has no idea what to do with her; she's villain and caricature, punch line and punching bag. Jenny is the most sympathetic character in the film -- a boulder among pebbles, a woman whose stability is perceived by others as insanity. Cusack is the very definition of a supporting player, but she's given the unseemly task of propping up people unworthy of her attention or affection. In the movie's only stirring scene, Jenny explains to Helen that she's the way she is -- demanding, humorless, perhaps even overbearing -- because she was never allowed her own childhood. Helen responds by yelling at Jenny and storming out, which makes her not just a bad mother, but also a lousy sister and an awful heroine for a story about what it means, and what it takes, to grow up.