Plot: What’s it about?
“Raising Helen” is an exercise in the status quo. Right from the start, it’s obvious you’re in for something excessively ordinary in execution, typical in style and by the numbers in character development. The plot twist is non-existent and the need to practice misdirection a distant concern. There are no surprises to be found here, and the clichés mount faster than the explosions in a modern day action blockbuster. The plot revolves around Helen (imagine that), played to average perfection by Kate Hudson, whose debut role as Penny Lane in Crowe’s “Almost Famous” shows no sign of being trumped by the likes of this film. One of Helen’s sisters has just died, leaving her three kids to Helen’s care. Naturally, she doesn’t know the first thing about being a parent, a good role model or just about anything else about raising children. All the genre staples are here in all their glory: the sister who knows how to do everything better than Helen (a reliably quirky Joan Cusack), the love interest that just happens to also be the principal at the children’s school, the decision to allow the sister to take the kids before a catharsis near the end during which Helen realizes she really wants to be a mother to the kids after all.
With all of these completely original ideas going for the film right off the bat, you probably know just exactly what kind of a moving, resonating experience you’re in for when viewing it. All right, so I’m being a bit sarcastic. No, the film doesn’t even pretend to be original and no, it doesn’t attempt to reinvent the dramatic comedy / coming of age genre. But despite all of the handicaps the film manages to accumulate even before it gets going, there’s one thing that it does have going for it in spades: it has a heart. And we’re not talking a slight twinge of heartstring pulling here. We’re talking an out and out, unabashedly manipulative tearjerker / feel-good flick all rolled into one disgustingly tasty bite. And here’s the kicker: God help me, I actually liked it. Call me a sucker if you will, but even though I saw everything coming three miles away, I still got involved with these characters and where they were headed. Did they go anywhere unexpected? No, not really. But did I care that I saw them get to that sap-fest of the final reel unscathed? You bet. And you know, the scary thing is, I’m almost not ashamed to admit that. All the actors involved to a splendid job of making us care about what’s going to happen next (even when “what’s going to happen next” is a given). The movie might be manipulative, but it’s good at what it does. Can I help that? No, of course not.
Even though (as I’ve already pointed out) Kate Hudson’s performance won’t win any awards next year, I do think much in this film is owed to her very presence. I don’t know what it is about her, but Hudson exudes emotion behind silent stoicism better than just about anyone out there, and that quality helps this film immeasurably. Truth be told, there’s probably more going on in the viewer’s head while watching Helen go through the usual emotions of a flick like this than the film itself is remotely equipped to convey. So, in essence, this is a prime example of a movie that only works if you allow it to work. Nothing is going to raise your eyebrows, but something is likely to hit you where it hurts if you’re willing to go with the admittedly stereotypical flow. This is a very difficult film to review. For those only interested in the facts, here they are. There’s nothing wrong with this film. There’s also nothing that sets it apart from countless others like it. But it does do what it does well and with a lot of sincerity, so if you’re a hopeless romantic like I am, you should feel right at home with this movie. Just watch it on a night that when you’re tired of explosions. You’ll feel all warm and fuzzy while you’re watching it and then regret it later. But hey, these kinds of films aren’t meant to change your life, just to give you good, light-hearted entertainment. In today’s world of seemingly never-ending piles of violence and sex, status quo or no, that’s got to count for something.
Video: How does it look?
I’m afraid the video on “Raising Helen” is just about as closely analogous to the film as possible. The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer does its job well, but it does nothing to go beyond it, either. Black levels, contrast, color temperature, compression and detail level are all fine. They’re just not exemplary. Everything about this presentation screams “normal” from the highest hill. There’s an ever-so-slight bit of edge enhancement, but nothing too distracting (or atypical). All in all, a solid picture with no problems. I can’t see any reason to deduct any ratings points for this effort, but I somehow finding myself wanting to do so anyway. I suppose I’ll be kind and keep my expectations in check. So in short, nothing to write home about, but very good for what it is. Sound familiar?
Audio: How does it sound?
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track on this release is – again – just fine for a 5.1 mix of a dialogue-driven film, but then only so much can be done with material this static. There are no moments in the film for this mix to stretch its legs, and the result is a very (sigh) average audio track. Dialogue, for its part, sounds very clean and intelligible, and separation between the front three channels is well done. As for surround envelopment, I wouldn’t listen too hard (you might strain your ears). This also isn’t exactly a film to test out your bass response, so I find it hard to deduct much off the audio for lack of trying. Basically, it’s nothing to write home…well, you get the picture.
Supplements: What are the extras?
The biggest “extra” on the disc is the commentary track by director Garry Marshall. It’s a good track with a tolerable number of lapses into silence. Marshall has always been a rather “goofy” commentator, and he seems more interested in appreciating the finished product than really delving into the work that was put into it in any meaningful way. Still, it’s a decent effort and worth a listen at least once. A few deleted scenes are also included, complete with some atrociously over-done introductory comments by the director. Garry Marshall seems to forget in this segment that, although the film has a few young children in it, a few adults may actually be watching this DVD as well. A music video and blooper reel are also thrown in for good measure. No trailer to speak of, but then there’s only so much good, wholesome entertainment that I can take in one sitting.