Raising Helen (BrianOrndorf)

Helen Harris (Kate Hudson) is living the freewheeling fashion industry life in New York, totally absorbed in her own problems and frustrations. When Helen’s sister (Felicity Huffman) dies, her children (Spenser Breslin, Abigail Breslin, and Hayden Panettiere) are bequeathed to the newbie mother, and the other surviving sister, the psychotically maternal Jenny (Joan Cusack), is shocked at the decision. Now, responsible for three kids, Helen soon finds that her life is slipping away from her. Fired from her job, entangled in an awkward relationship with a Lutheran pastor (John Corbett), and unable to keep tabs on her charges, Helen is overwhelmed by motherhood and reluctantly turns to Jenny for help learning the ropes.

Director Marshall always seems to make the same movie with whatever script he decides to shoot. He’s a filmmaker dependent on anodyne, oatmeal material that will provide a nice warm hug for the audience, and keep his odds for box office success alive for another year. He’s had some big hits (“Pretty Woman,” “Beaches,” “Runaway Bride”), but for man directing for over 20 years, nothing extraordinary has come from it. His latest is completely and utterly a Garry Marshall film. Coated in a suffocating goo that is supposed to represent emotional reverberation, and performed by a cast that is either miscast or just old fashioned bad, “Helen” does represent something of a career benchmark for Marshall: it’s his worst film to date.

Seriously, “Helen” makes “Exit to Eden” look like a trip to the Wonka factory.

Marshall is a filmmaker who loves his emotionally calculating pap, and while other directors can easily get away with it, Marshall always loses his focus when he overextends himself trying to engage his audience. “Helen” has all the saccharine ingredients that Marshall loves: dead people, life lessons, affluent families, and unbearable Hollywood kids who act more like they’re in a toothpaste commercial than in a feature film. It’s all like catnip to this director. Since Marshall has been down this road many times before (if not with this plot, for sure this genre), he’s content to coast on the PG-13 charms of the production without ever really trying to connect to the audience without absolute manipulation. Why else would he cast Hudson in a lead role, if not to seduce interest in this crud through her glowing smile and eclectic charmsr

Hudson does what she’s hired for, but it isn’t nearly enough. Her recent career trajectory of romantic comedies (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) has been greatly disappointing, but you can feel her true comedic talents simmering under the weight of obligation that Marshall has placed on her to be ceaselessly endearing. Hudson’s brand of acting doesn’t fit Helen’s arc, and her final depiction of motherhood as being a cast-iron bitch is an unfortunate scream when it’s obviously meant to represent character evolution. And only in a Garry Marshall film would Helen’s entire dramatic backbone of the story hinge on lyrics to a Devo song.

Hudson’s scenes with John Corbett are also flooded with unease, partially because the two share little chemistry, but mostly because Corbett is a lousy actor. You believe the sluggish Corbett more as a tough Lutheran pastor than as a sexual being, which is the opposite of the film’s intentions. Joan Cusack is swimming upstream trying to remain her wacky self, but feeling little love from the script and her confusing character. And the kids are classic examples of well-oiled tinseltown rugrats who take any believability out of the scenario with gobs of sassmouth or performing a Marshall favorite: the weepy, helpless routine. Did we learn nothing from “School of Rockr” It’s great that these kids can hit their marks and learn their lines, but they (especially the Breslin siblings) always come off more as trained seals than real children.

“Raising Helen” is a transparent, coldly manipulative audience-pleasing comedy/drama that doesn’t deserve your attention, tears, or time. This is first of two movies this summer from Marshall (“Princess Diaries 2” arrives in August), but let’s all hope that is the brunt of the sap that the filmmaker can dish out.

Rating: D-