An undemanding dramedy about a self-absorbed Manhattan career woman who grapples with the responsibilities of instant motherhood, "Raising Helen" should skew primarily toward an older demographic, despite the presence of Kate Hudson in the title role. Expect midrange theatrical B.O. and average homevid biz.

An undemanding dramedy about a self-absorbed Manhattan career woman who grapples with the responsibilities of instant motherhood, “Raising Helen” should skew primarily toward an older demographic, despite the presence of Kate Hudson in the title role. Expect midrange theatrical B.O. and average homevid biz.

Somewhat misleading ad art in pre-release posters and newspaper ads feature a smiling Hudson in reclining, semi-alluring pose, suggesting “Helen” may be in same saucy vein as last year’s “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” the actress’s sole breakout hit. Bait-and-switch quality of promo is underscored by pic itself, which repeatedly reflects the sitcom roots of vet director Garry Marshall (“Pretty Woman,” “The Princess Diaries”).

Helen Harris (Hudson) — personal assistant to Dominique (Helen Mirren), queenly head of a Manhattan modeling agency — is a go-go go-getter whose fast track leads through fashion shows, photo shoots and trendy nightclubs. In this, she is the polar opposite of her oldest sister, Jenny (Joan Cusack), a neo-Stepford wife who approaches her duties as mother and homemaker with a rigor that borders on the control-freakish.

After their sister and brother-in-law are killed in an offscreen auto mishap, Jenny automatically assumes that she, not Helen, will be granted custody of the late couple’s offspring when the last will and testament is read.

But no: Their sister (fleetingly played by Felicity Huffman) assumed, perhaps rightly, that her children — boy-crazy adolescent Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), husky youngster Henry (Spencer Breslin) and moody moppet Sarah (Abigail Breslin, Spencer’s real-life sibling) — would be better off with a surrogate mom who’s not quite so tightly wound. So the kids wind up with aunt Helen.

Naturally, the new responsibilities place a severe crimp on Helen’s party-hearty lifestyle. Just as naturally, she very quickly loses her prestigious job after she’s forced to take the children with her to a major fashion show. Helen takes the setbacks in stride, however, and moves with the kids to a cheaper, roomier apartment in Queens, where she eventually finds work at a car dealership run by Mickey Massey (Hector Elizondo).

To their credit, scripters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler are refreshingly realistic about socioeconomic details that too often are glossed over (or totally ignored) in feel-good comedy-dramas of this sort. And Marshall earns points for a slightly bemused but mostly matter-of-fact approach to developing a romance between Helen and a hunky Lutheran pastor (an agreeable John Corbett) who’s principal of the private school where she enrolls the children. Wonder of wonders, his profession is not milked for cheap jokes.

In most other respects, however, pic is thoroughly predictable — and more than a little pokey — as it charts Helen’s evolution from blithely indulgent aunt to tough-loving mother. Funny bits prompt many chuckles but relatively few big laughs. Final third has palpably moralizing air as Cusack’s Jenny, a character played for laughs in early scenes, gradually emerges as a dead-serious and ineffably smug role model for the heretofore frivolous Helen.

Fortunately for all parties concerned, Hudson generates enough good will in the first two-thirds of “Raising Helen” to offset sporadic preachiness. She’s effortlessly engaging in a performance short on broad brushstrokes — she takes only one pratfall in the entire pic — and rich in sprightly charm.

Children’s parts are well cast and generally well played. (Abigail Breslin’s occasional whininess is grating, but that may be blamed on the way role is written.) Corbett evidences easygoing charisma not unlike that he displayed in “My Fat Big Greek Wedding.” Cusack is hard-pressed to find and convey a consistent throughline in her role. Mirren occasionally drops in to steal a scene or two.

Production values enhance glossiness of a pic that more than likely will spin off a TV series in the not-too-distant future.

Raising Helen

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures and Beacon Pictures presentation of a Mandeville Films/Ashok Amritraj production. Produced by Amritraj, David Hoberman. Executive producers: Mario Iscovich, Ellen H. Schwartz. Co-producers, Todd Lieberman, Karen Stirgwolt. Directed by Garry Marshall. Screenplay, Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, from a story by Patrick J. Clifton, Beth Rigazio.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Charles Minsky; editors, Bruce Green, Tara Timpone; music, John Debney; music supervisor, Dawn Soler; production designer, Steven Jordan; art director, Bill Hiney; set decorator, Suzette Sheets; costume designer, Gary Jones; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Thomas Causey; associate producer, David Scharf; assistant director, Ellen H. Schwartz; second unit directors, Scott Marshall, David H. Venghaus Jr.; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at Edwards Grand Palace Stadium 24, Houston, May 9, 2004. (Also in Tribeca Film Festival - Opening Gala.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 119 MIN.

With

Helen Harris - Kate Hudson Pastor Don Parker - John Corbett Jenny Portman - Joan Cusack Mickey Massey - Hector Elizondo Dominique - Helen Mirren Audrey Davis - Hayden Panettiere Henry Davis - Spencer Breslin Sarah Davis - Abigail Breslin Nilma Prasad - Sakina Jaffrey Ed Portman - Kevin Kilner Lindsay Davis - Felicity Huffman Paul Davis - Sean O'Bryan

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