Like the films made by his sister Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own, Jumpin’ Jack Flash), the same recurring theme frequently pops up in the films by Garry Marshall which is of the fish-out-of-water paradigm where main characters find themselves as outsiders stuck in situations and places in which they never wanted to be. Although more gender balanced in Penny’s oeuvre with Awakenings, Big and others, in the films of Garry Marshall we usually find a happy and free-spirited female character who needs to be tamed into a more traditionally accepted gender role. Whether it’s the appallingly sexist Overboard, the ugly duckling tale of Princess Diaries, or the hooker with the heart of gold premise of Pretty Woman, it shows up again and again and in the worst form in the atrociously anti-feminist Georgia Rule. Although on principle, I dislike this plotline for obvious reasons, some of Garry Marshall’s films have still been entertaining and heartfelt, including the cynical yet escapist and popular Pretty Woman but that “lesson” that each heroine learns in each successive film becomes more and more apparent such as in the trifle Raising Helen that succeeds mostly because of the charms of lovely leading lady Kate Hudson.
In the film, Hudson plays a successful executive assistant at a modeling agency working under the supervision of Helen Mirren who spends her days helping coordinate models and photo shoots and evenings dancing away with her clients in exclusive Manhattan clubs. Reality comes crashing down cruelly when her older sister Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) and husband are killed and twenty-something Helen learns she has been given custody of her two nieces and one nephew. Predictably she realizes that her wild lifestyle of hedonism and materialism doesn’t mesh with motherhood. Dutifully, she moves her brood to Queens where she ends up working as a secretary and later saleswoman at a car dealership and enrolls the kids at a Lutheran school where the principal and self described—1, 2, 3, cringe-- “sexy man of God,” Pastor Dan (John Corbett) becomes Helen's unlikely romantic interest. Meanwhile, she battles with the new level of responsibility in her life and tries to balance parental control with affable aunt-hood by consulting her no-nonsense sister Jenny (Joan Cusack) as things get increasingly more out of control. Sitcom light and a bit too convenient with the overabundance of shortcuts offered to the characters involved, Raising Helen is still one of his better party girl turned mother figure coming of female age films and one that can be enjoyed-- unlike the adult themed Pretty Woman and younger skewed Princess Diaries-- by a wider variety of ages.