Don’t let the cast list or the title get your hopes up. Garry Marshall’s latest wide-screen sitcom, “Raising Helen,” has, alas, little to do with Helen Mirren — although she does get about 10 minutes of screen time as a Manhattan modeling-agency executive who has a Trump-ish talent for dismissing stale ideas and firing people.
But while Mirren dominates every one of those minutes, and she seems to be having a grand time wallowing in the character’s top-dog bitchiness, she isn’t around long enough to steal the movie. Which badly needs stealing.
The Mirren character’s chief narrative purpose is to fire her ditsy assistant, Helen Harris (Kate Hudson), who has suddenly become a parent and is therefore unfit for the New York fashion scene. Helen’s sister has died, leaving her to care for three orphans: rebellious teenager Audrey (Hayden Panttiere), 10-year-old geek Henry (Spencer Breslin) and withdrawn five-year-old Sarah (Abigail Breslin).
The four of them move to Queens, where Helen takes the kids to a Lutheran school that happens to be run by Dan Parker, a very welcoming pastor played by “Sex and the City’s” favorite hunk, John Corbett. Yes, in no time, Helen has a new boyfriend as well as a family. As the Church Lady used to say, “how convenient.”
She also has a surviving sister, the very pregnant Jenny, played by Joan Cusack, who does wonders with Jenny’s neurotic sense of parental entitlement. Jenny is a nagging pain most of the time, and she reveals an insidious talent for pushing her passive husband's buttons, but in Cusack’s hands she’s quite funny — until that moment comes when the music signals sentiment and she starts speechifying about the meaning of parenthood.
With its non-stop stream of Tidy Little Life Lessons, provided by screenwriters Patrick Clifton and Beth Rigazio, “Raising Helen” could have been made 50 years ago. But that would be an insult to the 1950s. After all, 1958’s infinitely more sophisticated “Auntie Mame” had a lot more fun with the idea of an orphan who lands on the doorstep of a socially active New York aunt.
Why couldn’t Marshall and his writers let Helen and her new family explore the fashion world where Helen clearly belongs? The screenwriters can’t wait to get her fired and have her apply for work as a secretary at a used-car lot run by Marshall’s most frequently employed supporting actor, Hector Elizondo. This subplot seems not only gratuitous but a waste of time.
“Raising Helen” is also much less interesting than such recent kids-in-the-city sagas as “In America,” which brings an infectious sense of wonder to the kids’ New York adventures, or “Jersey Girl,” which mixes its manipulative moments with plenty of welcome quirkiness.
Aside from Mirren’s edginess and Cusack’s obsessively maternal behavior, almost nothing about Marshall’s movie rings true. The kids’ sense of grief over their parents’ death seems utterly artificial, as does Helen’s concern about losing her career. The actors try, but there’s not much for them to hang on to.