Raising Helen

I’m told that bringing children into your life is a marvelous way to straighten out your priorities and determine what’s really important. I’m told this most often by movies, every time a new one comes out with this theme, which is approximately once a month. If I had kids, and if I had therefore already learned this for myself, I would probably be even more tired of the movies telling me about it than I already am.

Oh, but I’m being churlish already, and “Raising Helen” isn’t a bad movie, just an unoriginal one, following in the footsteps of “Big Daddy,” “Uptown Girls,” “Family Man” and countless others. These films follow this pattern: The protagonist is either a workaholic or a slacker, he or she suddenly has to care for a child or children, and he or she grows up.

The Helen in need of raising is played by Kate Hudson, still riding the applause for her “Almost Famous” performance despite not having given a good one since then. Helen is a top exec at a New York City modeling agency, so her life is equal parts work and partying, leaving no room for anything else.

Then her sister and brother-in-law are killed in a car crash, and their will specifically leaves their three children to Helen, even though their other sister Jenny (Joan Cusack) would have been the logical choice, being very mom-like and having two kids of her own. Jenny’s kinda hurt at the slight, and both she and Helen are puzzled. Nonetheless, Helen takes the kids, moves to an apartment in Queens, and puts them into a Lutheran private school. (The public schools are icky.)

I like the kids. There’s Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), a teenage girl just beginning to explore the limits of her rebelliousness; Henry (Spencer Breslin), a goofy pre-adolescent with a fondness for turtles; and little Sarah (Abigail Breslin), the kindergartner just learning to tie her shoes. The children are believable, their interaction seems real (Henry and Sarah are siblings in real life), and the script gives them a few funny things to say. (I like Sarah’s answer when Henry asks why she always wants to name the pets “Hippo”: “Because I can spell it.”)

Anyway, Helen’s job, which requires frequent travel and long hours, soon becomes unworkable with the current arrangement and she finds she must give it up. (The job, not the arrangement.) She has some solace in her friendship with Pastor Dan (John Corbett), principal of the kids’ school, and help from feisty Indian neighbor Nilma (Sakina Jaffrey), but ultimately still feels overwhelmed by it all.

Those supporting characters provide a spark of life, as does Joan Cusack as Helen’s anal-retentive sister. Never mind why a New Jersey-bred girl has such a thick Chicago accent, I’m just glad anytime I get to see Cusack in a movie. She can make almost anything funny.

It is Helen herself who is the least-interesting person here. Kate Hudson has cuteness, but very little personality. She’s as ill-equipped to carry the film as Helen is to raise three children, and the movie falls into a lull every time she becomes the focus of it.

There is also director Garry Marshall’s penchant for making his films far longer than they need to be, and for not being a very good filmmaker anyway. (“Dear God,” anyone? “The Other Sister,” perhaps?) His only two legitimately good movies have both starred Julia Roberts and Richard Gere; the rest, like this one, are tolerable at best.

In fact, “Raising Helen” is one of his better efforts. It is gently witty and occasionally entertaining, if you can overlook the fact that you’ve seen it all before.

B- (2 hrs.; PG-13, some mild profanity.)