Raising Helen

Even with two other efforts set for 2003 that look to be a step up from the dreck above (a romantic comedy and an ensemble piece), Hudson still needs to find a good vehicle that she can call her own. One which will showcase the charm, knack of loose comedy and vibrant energy she revealed in “Famous.” One where the picture rests on her willowy shoulders, rather than where she is part of an ensemble production. Based on the script of “Raising Helen,” the character of Helen Bradley is a better-than-average effort that is sure to highlight Hudson’s multiple skills as an actress.

“Raising Helen” begins with the camera capturing Helen’s legs striding confidently down an endless New York City sidewalk as she meets up with friends at some of the city’s hottest clubs. The velvet ropes blocking entry to such establishments do not exist for her; one quick, well-placed call to the large doormen has her in the door in a flash. Her single life is a good one, one that many would envy. She has a marvelous job at a modeling agency as an executive assistant/booker, good friends, a close-knit relationship with her two married sisters, a great apartment, and a quasi-boyfriend who shows up knocking on her door when she needs him most. Maybe I understated the above- in short, her life is perfect. But all this is about to change when she finds that her oldest sister Lindsay and her husband (Helen’s brother-in-law) Paul have died in an automobile accident.

Before the viewer learns of this tragedy, though, they are first introduced to Helen’s extended family at a birthday party in upstate Connecticut. Here we meet the tragic birthday girl Lindsay, Paul, Helen’s other sister Jenny and her husband Ed, as well as their broods of children- most importantly, Lindsay’s daughters Audrey (15 years old) and Sarah (5) and son Kenny (10). We quickly find out that she has a great rapport with all of the children, naturally; they refer to her as “cool Aunt Helen” and sharing with her a love of dancing to Devo’s “Whip It.” These scenes serve mostly as a set up to what we will learn a little bit later. Here, the scriptwriters are almost effective in conveying what a tight-knit clan the family is, and that Lindsay is the conduit to all this familial happiness, serving as the matriarch and mediator of the family. What’s more, she balances out perfectly the relationship between the buttoned-up Supermom Jenny and the spontaneous Helen.

The family is then thrown into chaos as they receive this tragic news of Lindsay and Paul’s deaths. When Helen is given the news, the screenplay writes “the look on Helen’s face changes to a look of horror…she starts shaking as life goes on blithely around her.” We fast-forward to the funeral and then to the lawyer reading Lindsay and Paul’s will; to the surprise of all, Helen is made the guardian of her nieces and nephew. When the children find out, we witness a genuinely touching interchange between Sarah and Helen that should translate well to the big screen:

Sarah: Who’s going to take me to schoolr

Helen: I guess I am.

Sarah: And make me chicken fingersr

Helen: Me.

Sarah: And give me a bathr

Helen: Me.

Sarah: And play basketball with Kennyr And do my braidr And tell us to brush our teethr And check my nose boogies for infectionr

Helen: Me. Me. Me. And we’ll find someone else to do that last thing with the nose boogies.

She pulls up her charges’ stakes in Connecticut, moving them to a dilapidated apartment in Queens. Her relationship with her friends becomes torn- with one of the best scenes in the screenplay showing the culture shock of her model friends coming to visit her in their new apartment. Their gift to Helen of a Prada handbag is quickly used by Kenny to kill a wandering cockroach. They tell her that her new life is fabulous when they leave, but as soon as they are out of earshot, they mumble to each other that what they just laid eyes on was a disaster.

Before she knows it, she is slinging pancakes in an “Uncle Buck” fashion, having helped to child-proof her windows, attempting to replace a pet turtle that has died before its time and enrolls the children at a local Lutheran school, with the pastor becoming Helen’s eventual love interest. The life Helen once knew is most definitely through as she knows it, but she is happy in some ways with these three little bundles of id and energy. These scenes show a great deal of poignancy as they are written on the page, especially with such a difficult subject matter that has to be balanced in its humor.

Even her job prospects suffer, as she can no longer be the single-minded, super-organized person she once was as she juggles the three kids’ problems. And her relationship with Devon, her gentleman caller, is definitely out the window as well.

Things take an even bleaker turn, though, as we begin the third act. Trying to juggle life and family, she brings a model to the school on their way to a photo shoot, after a panicked teacher orders them to come immediately with Sarah not feeling well. The kids become overjoyed at playing dress-up with the real-life model and putting make-up on her face…until one child uses a permanent marker to ill effect. Whoops. Helen is quickly called onto the carpet at the modeling agency and the best she can do afterwards is getting work at a car dealership.

Home life is also becoming difficult, with Audrey falling for an older rebel student and Kenny losing interest in sports, instead questioning religion. When Audrey’s boyfriend brings her to a hotel at the prom, Helen is scared to act because she knows Audrey will hate her for being uncool. Jenny, who happens to be in town, drags Audrey out of there and takes custody of the kids.

Now alone in her Queens apartment and being unable to participate in the inane conversation she has with friends, Helen finds that her previous life was lacking in a number of ways-she knows something is deeply missing. And, in the final scenes, she confronts her sister to get them back. Being that this is being looked at as a family film, as well as who gets top billing, I think you and I both know what it to happen in the final scenes. What makes the moments especially poignant is Jenny’s reading the note her older sister has left her (and then switching to a voice-over by Lindsay), with the reasons why Lindsay left the children to Helen. A very touching ending that will no doubt have viewers thinking about the status of their own relationships.

My Thoughts
While this is not the type of film I normally would see either in theaters or on video, I found the script to be clipping along at a good pace and extremely zippy in dialogue despite its bulky 144 pages. There are both some humorous scenes, as well as some genuinely touching moments, to be found here, and they even out nicely. With children’s dialogues and mannerisms perhaps one of the most difficult part of screenwriting to capture in scripts, one can certainly feel the gentle retouching done by a deft hand by those who have handled television shows (Jack Amiel with “Malcolm in the Middle”) and films (“Disney’s The Kid” was Audrey Wells’ doing, for better or worse) appropriate to this genre in the past.

It doesn’t get away scot-free, however, as there are some problems with the screenplay in its current draft. There are some things missing to me as I read this, with the re-touching needed most in its introduction to the children in the first act at Lindsay’s birthday and those scenes involving Devon, as they feel out of place. Also needing work is the transitions between disparate scenes, where it sometimes lags-particularly where the stop-start patch where the lan makes the decision to move to New York City.

Kate Hudson is a pitch-perfect choice to play Helen, but a great deal of this film’s success lies in casting the children, as well as coaxing good performances out of them. Also key will be appropriately marketing this film, as its melancholy tone will present itself as a challenge much in the same way that the 2001 film “Riding in Cars with Boys” did, a film that managed to do less than $30 million at the box office. If packaged properly, this could even be considered for Oscar nominations- but it all comes down to how much Buena Vista gets behind this production.

The bottom-line is that this is an enjoyable read and should do well in its trip from the page to the screen, with some minor changes. This is a perfect vehicle for Hudson and should help her establish herself further as a contender for the A list.

Screenplay written by Patrick Clifton and Beth Rigazio, with revisions by Jack Amiel and Michael Belger (two draft revisions by the pair, including the current script) and Audrey Wells. Script dated October 18th, 2002

Rating: B